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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Church leaders: "Transgenic" plants must be used to feed poor

Many queries that lead people to this blog are from people seeking information on the Catholic position on genetically modified foods. I haven’t posted much on the issue because I didn't feel I had the right amount of information.

But now I do.

When I interviewed him for a recent interview on biodiversity, Dr. Peter Raven of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences sent me a good deal of documentation on the use of genetic sciences in the arena of food security and supply. And yesterday, Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson of Ghana told an audience in Des Moines, Iowa that the findings of science can and should be used to feed the hungry.

As reported in the Des Moines Register,
Citing Pope John Paul II, Turkson told a room filled with about 1,000 people attending the World Food Prize symposium in downtown Des Moines that adverse climate change has affected food production in poor countries, “and the findings of science must be put to use in order to ensure a high productivity of land.”
Turkson asked why biotechnology has elicited “so much displeasure, distrust, skepticism and opposition,” when the “world rejoiced at achievements of Norman Borlaug,” the Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was credited with saving millions of lives with development of disease-resistant wheat varieties.
Cardinal Turkson. Photo: Flicker/Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Turkson suggested some “moral parameters” to help guide dialogue. “Some may claim that research is ethically neutral, that its application is either good or bad,” he said. “But there’s no human activity that’s ethically neutral.”
“There is a need sometimes to be prudent,” he said. “Let’s take every reasonable measure of caution beforehand to avoid the risk of human health or the environment. Such prudence is necessary to any element to advance the common good.”
And there should be transparency with the public, Turkson said. “Adopt the highest standards of communication with the public as well as rules of labeling to guarantee producers’ and consumers’ rights to information.”
“This is necessary for everyone to have a true choice,” Turkson said. “For what makes us truly human is our power to choose.”
He also called patent rights legitimate, given that research is expensive. “But it needs also to be monitored and regulated. Fair ways must be found to share the fruits of research and ensure developing countries have access to resources and innovations. “It’s crucial for humanity’s attainment of zero hunger objective,” he said.
These words echoed comments made by Dr. Raven, who himself is renowned for his studies of life on earth.

In a paper delivered to the International Symposium on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms, Dr. Raven concluded that
[a]ssessments of the biosafety effects of GM crops on biodiversity should not be overly politically-driven or a burdensome impedance to delivering this technology broadly.  Biosafety scientists and policy makers need to recognize the undeniable truth that inappropriate actions resulting in indecision also have negative consequences. We should employ all the tools at our disposal in the drive to build sustainable agriculture. It is no longer acceptable to delay the use of any strategy that is safe and will help us achieve the ability to feed the world’s people. (Emphasis original)
Dr. Peter Raven
Courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden
Elsewhere, he has examined the impact of transgenic foods on biodiversity, a topic of professional interest to him. In writing this February to colleagues in India, Dr. Raven outlined a series of arguments to support genetically modified foods. While lengthy for a blog posting, they are helpful to read because they blend a good deal of practical and moral considerations with what science has to offer. According to Dr. Raven:
1. All crops are genetically modified. They have been the object of selection for the past 11,000 years, since crop agriculture was first developed in the Middle East and subsequently spread throughout the world. One needs only to compare a cultivated strain with its wild progenitor to know the truth of this statement.
2. For the past 200 years or so, precise scientific breeding methods have been applied to the improvement of crops. Seven more or less drastic breeding methods have been applied to re-shuffling the chromosome of individual plants and plant groups, as outlined by Gustafson, Borlaug and Raven (2010). With the exception of transgenics only, no one has ever questioned the inherent safety of any of these methods.
3. In 1974 Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen for the first time inserted a gene from one unrelated kind of organism into another, this precisely modifying the genetic instructions encoded in its DNA. For the past 40 years scientists have been working to determine the safety of such transgenic organisms, and they have universally determined that there is nothing intrinsically unsafe about them or the products derived from them. There is not even a theory as to why they should be unsafenone. Every academy of science in the world that has issued a statement on the safety of food produced by GM crops has agreed that there is no danger; included are the academies of India, Brazil, China, Mexico, the U.S., the U.K., and a number of other countries, each of which reached this conclusion independently after a period of study, review, and reflection.
4. Foods and medicines derived from transgenic plants have been in common and growing in use for some 20 years. These include virtually all beer, virtually all cheese, virtually all soy products, about a quarter of the medicines we use, most maize, much squash, and virtually all papayas produced. It is estimated that currently in the U.S. about 8% of the total diet consists of GM-derived components.  Not a single case of ill health has originated among those consuming such foods, and again, there is no theory about why they would become ill from consuming such foods. 
5. It is sometimes argued that transgenic plants hybridizing with the wild or weedy relatives might give rise to super-weeds or pests of some sort. With some 20,000 kinds of plants in the world classified as weeds, and no demonstrations of the predicted “super weeds,” this seems an argument of no practical value. The excessive use of herbicides or pesticides gives rises to resistant weeds whether or not transgenic plants are involved. The development of additional herbicide-resistant strains of crop plants is being pursued actively by a number of companies.
6. It is argued that the use of transgenic crops endangers the survival of traditional crop varieties and of the practices involved in cultivating them.  Such replacement is a property of any modern crop variety, and it has nothing to do with transgenic varieties per se. India’s excellent National Bureau on Plant Genetic Resources does a fine job of preserving traditional varieties in the country.  It cannot be expected that farmers should continue growing low-yielding strains of crops to preserve them unless the farmers are subsidized for doing so.  In other words, one can’t prop up sustainability on the backs of poor farmers.
Dr. Raven (who is not Catholic) isn't alone in his arguments. In May, 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences issued a statement (that Dr. Raven contributed to) that supports the use of transgenic applications in agriculture. Impressively, the statement summarizes the research and thoughts of some forty scientists and it makes clear up front that researchers took as their guiding words statements of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (including that “[t]echnology, in this sense, is a response to God's command to till and to keep the land (cf. Gen 2:15) that he has entrusted to humanity, and it must serve to reinforce the covenant between human beings and the environment, a covenant that should mirror God's creative love.” Emphasis original to Caritas in Veritate.)

The document makes many points similar to those noted above by Dr. Raven. As it concludes a variety of considerations, we read that
[g]iven these scientific findings, there is a moral imperative to make the benefits of GE technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments.
And so in summary, many leaders in the Church are supporting the use of genetic engineering when used morally, rightly, and for the common good. My brothers and sisters in Christ who consider modified foods abhorrent will not be comfortable with this. And indeed, since these statements of support are related to prudential matters and are not de fide pronouncements from the Chair of St. Peter, Catholics can ignore them. But would that be wise?

As a proponent of organic gardening, farming, and eating, I find myself asking that and other questions. I, too, have much to learn and think about. And certainly, the conversation around such issues comes with many strong opinions.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences acknowledges this debate. It also engages it. Indeed, its closing overview of issues such as the public’s understanding of science and the role of the private sector are worth the time to read and reread, as are the statement’s concluding recommendations. As did Cardinal Turkson in Des Moines, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences statement speaks to many of the concerns raised by those who object to genetic modifications within the food supply—concerns like greed, organizational corruption, scientific uncertainty, and so many other characteristics of our fallen human race.

Thus this conversation is a particular, real-world application of what we find in Section 159 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches us about the relation between faith and reason. And as this posting has already taken more space than most, we’ll end it (but not the conversation) with those words from the Catechism—words we should read with prayerful consideration of their implications in issues like feeding the least of our brothers and sisters.
§159: Faith and science: "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are."

UPDATE: A reader commented on the inclusion of biotechnology in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This is indeed an important piece to the story. The relevant sections of the Compendium are 472 to 480 and they do indeed echo what has been noted above. Here's one example: 
473. The Christian vision of creation makes a positive judgment on the acceptability of human intervention in nature, which also includes other living beings, and at the same time makes a strong appeal for responsibility.[1002] In effect, nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone. Rather, it is a gift offered by the Creator to the human community, entrusted to the intelligence and moral responsibility of men and women. For this reason the human person does not commit an illicit act when, out of respect for the order, beauty and usefulness of individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem, he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties. Human interventions that damage living beings or the natural environment deserve condemnation, while those that improve them are praiseworthy. The acceptability of the use of biological and biogenetic techniques is only one part of the ethical problem: as with every human behaviour, it is also necessary to evaluate accurately the real benefits as well as the possible consequences in terms of risks. In the realm of technological-scientific interventions that have forceful and widespread impact on living organisms, with the possibility of significant long-term repercussions, it is unacceptable to act lightly or irresponsibly.


  1. Of all the logical fallacies of Dr. Raven's six point defense of GM plants, the most egregious one is the same one most anit-GM activists engage in - treating GM crops as if they are a single category that can be judged. Each GM variety is an entirely new and unique organism (and, importantly, marketable product) that must be judged individually. Anyone who says GMOs are safe is lying, and anyone who says GMO's are harmful is ignorant. Borlaug's green revolution is a great illustration of the faults of both poles of the GMO debate. Did the green revolution save millions of lives? Undoubtedly. Did it also irrevocably destroy much of the Earth's innate productive capacity and poison millions of people? Undoubtedly. So intensive pant breeding for maximum productivity combined with wanton application of dozens of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides plus industrial cultivation, harvesting and processing was a necessary step to address the massive hunger of the 20th century but industry and government should have recognized the obvious, that that method is a dead end for the planet, and should have been working at the same time to develop replacement sustainable methods. Another thing we learned from the green revolution is that new ag technologies can take many decades until their harm is recognized, partly because it can be so complex, subtle, and cumulative, and partly because governments and corporations have a major interest in suppressing and denying evidence of harm. So there may be some GM crops that provide true value, especially to the poorest of people. But saying that is no reason to give carte blanche to GMOs as a whole and no reason to ease our doubt, concern, and resistance to any new and novel addition to our vital food production system and the ecosystem. What we should be asking is, what aspect of food production CANNOT be adequately addressed with traditional, natural, sustainable means, and how do we use GM to address those needs without opening the door to GMOs that would threaten our ecosystem or or agricultural social arrangements? And is it reasonable to expect for profit business (or government) to even pursue that agenda? My extreme skepticism on that last question is my reason for being extremely conservative on GMOs without being an absolute opponent of them.

    1. I think that you hit it right on the head with your first sentence. And I am glad that you point out that both the pro and anti-gmo side suffer from the same fallacy that the term gmo is somehow a monolithic category and philosophy of food production. Genetic engineering at its essence merely allows us to do with more direct, precise and predictable outcomes what we seek to do with more indirect and imprecise breeding methods. It also makes a wider array of changes to crop genetic coding possible. Genetic engineering is now one of an array of means at our disposal to achieve desired end results in plant genetics, but it is not the end result in and of itself.

      Unfortunately, the term "GMO" has been coopted and distorted by the anti-GMO movement refer to food products derived from plants whose genetic instructions contain a gene or two that were manipulated by genetic engineering processes as an artificial replica for food. In other words, they use the term "GMO foods" to suggest that genetic engineering is a process for replacing food with something else. Promoters of genetic engineering have unwittingly acquiesced to this distortion as they see biotechnology as a new and improved version of food and the food system, i.e. Food System 2.0. Both sides need to concede that biotech is merely a tool, not a goal in and of itself. While any form of genetic alteration of food sources, whether through man's deliberate intervention by any method (including but not exclusive to, genetic engineering), or as the result of natural processes, could conceivably have unwelcome results, I believe in the end that genetic engineering is no more likely, and perhaps even less likely, to introduce risks into the food supply than any other genetic intervention process that we are currently comfortable with. With any degree of competence and understanding, we can avoid or even minimize any such risk. The pro-GMO side will probably eventually prevail on the food safety issue. Unfortunately, they fail to recognize that the concern of the anti-GMO side is not actually about safety anyway. Questioning food safety is merely a proxy argument for questioning whether there is a legitimate role of biotechnology generally, or an assumed collateral damage, i.e. if genetic engineering is a disruption of natural and social norms, then alleging that food products of crops touched by biotechnology must be tainted. Thus, the biotech promoters errantly assume that if we can show that biotech is safe, societal acceptance will quickly follow.

      We need to move beyond our focus on whether biotechnology is safe. The central issue, as you articulated very well is not whether the technology itself is good or bad, it is a matter of how it is applied. I am not quite as ready to indict the green revolution as an environmental disaster and an overall mistake that needs to be replaced. Yes, green revolution technologies and philosophies have not been without negative environmental and social consequences, but failure to achieve the productivity in agriculture the green revolution made possible would have had its own set of negative environmental and social consequences. While I would not say we should entirely abandon green revolution ideas, but more would say that green revolution farming needs to evolve in ways that preserve the benefits of intensive production, but that incorporate soil health and utilization of environmental interactions as an element of that productivity. While many would argue that the two are exclusive, I do have faith that biotechnology applied creatively and judiciously could be useful in reaching that endpoint.

  2. I thank Catholic Ecology for this post. I write only to add a further reference for readers. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, paragraphs 472 through 480 set forth prudential teachings of the Church about the "use of biotechnology." I commend these nine paragraphs to readers of Catholic Ecology.

    1. Thanks very much! I should have noted this in the post but (thanks to your reminder) have added it as an update. God bless.

  3. Stop the flow of 1.4 million gallons of formaldehyde, used annually by the US mortuary industry to poison the corpse (make it last?) as well as the environment. Choose a green burial at home, no funeral director. It is legal. Plant a tree as a headstone. Read Lisa Carlson's, "Caring for the Dead".


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