Battle Over Biotechnology; Sports and Spirituality

Conference Looks at Genetically Modified Organisms

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, SEPT. 30, 2004 ( Participants and press people alike found themselves highly stirred during a biotechnology conference held at the Gregorian University last week.

That’s exactly what the organizers of the event were hoping for.

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had joined forces to present the meeting entitled “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology?”

They aimed to investigate the complex moral debate surrounding the use of genetically modified foods or organisms, GMOs, as an answer to feeding the 1.5 billion people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

In his presentation, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences said that their hope was to delve deeper into the issue, “to collaborate what Pope Paul VI called the drama of hunger in the world.”

U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson agreed. “Feeding the hungry is a question of life and death,” he said. “It is a moral challenge of great magnitude that demands we explore all options to help the poor and assist them in their own environments to become self-sustaining in their food production.”

Despite the conference’s notable speakers, who represented the scientific, ecclesial and rural realms, the event drew accusations of being too one-sided by tending to favor the use of GMOs to be grown by the poor and starving.

Conference participants Jesuit Father Roland Lessops and Franciscan Sister Janet Fearns, who each spent many years working in rural Africa, told me of their frustration at the lack of “balanced representation.”

In one of his documents on this issue, Father Lessops warned of the “propaganda and distortion” surrounding “the argument of the proponents of GMOs.”

Ambassador Nicholson too recognized these misgivings. “Unfortunately, efforts to explore biotechnology’s potential have been hindered by misinformation and misunderstandings fomented by anti-biotech activists,” he said. “Scientific evidence has been overwhelming that biotech can play a critical role in the developing world.”

To date, the Vatican has taken no specific stance on the issue, even though the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has published a study document and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace sponsored an intense conference of this kind last November. Bishop Sánchez Sorondo pointed out that “the conclusions of the academy do not represent the official teachings of the Church, so they are free to be debated.”

Throughout the conference, the debate focused on ethical, environmental and economical concerns.

Father Lessops aired concerns that there is a division within the Church on the topic of biotechnology. He noted that “there are bishops’ conferences and Catholic institutions in many parts of the world — in the Philippines, South Africa, even parts of the U.S., who oppose GMOs.”

One of the speakers representing the Church in an official capacity was Legionary Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the bioethics school at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University. He told me that he believes that the division comes from “social ideology and different data input.”

Foes of biotechnology question whether it is ethically right for us to tamper with nature. Father Miranda supported the scientists in the hall, such as AgBio founder C.S. Prakash, when he noted that “humankind has been selecting and manipulating plant and animal food stocks for millenniums.”

Referring to the Book of Genesis, Father Miranda observed how humankind was created in the “image and likeness of God” and has been given dominion over all living things. “In this sense,” the priest said, “God has made man the ‘gardener of creation’ who should work with responsibility to cultivate and take care of it.”

He notes, however, that the Bible points out that humanity does not have the right to “abuse or do damage to nature.” Yet this is precisely what others believe GMOs do.

Father Rodrigo Peret, for instance, believes that many of the solutions to problems are already available in nature itself. Father Peret, who attended the conference, heads the Franciscan Justice and Peace office. He says that we do not need new biotechnology as it threatens health and biodiversity. “Technical solutions like genetic engineering overshadow real social and environmental problems that cause hunger,” he insisted.

Botanist Peter Raven, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and speaker at the conference, gave us examples of what has been achieved with various organisms, including the so-called golden rice. This is a grain enriched with vitamin A, the lack of which causes many diseases in Africa. “We are really able to produce the plants and animals that we want,” he said.

Of such “scientifically precise” GMOs, he noted: “It would be very foolhardy to not use them, particularly in a world that needs to feed so many people.”

Raven believes that many people opposed to GMOs “don’t really have the right information about the new science, and then I think they become involved with social issues.” He quickly added: “This is not to deny the social problems, the international trade problems, the intellectual property issues. But they apply to any technology, they are not unique to GMOs.”

Many groups working in the Third World, including that of Father Lessops, say they suspect the profit crusade behind many of the companies involved. They see the “imposition” of GMOs as the multinationals’ way of preying on desperate rural communities.

“The whole genetic engineering approach,” says Father Lessops, “is not really for feeding the poor people in the world, but for feeding the stakeholders in the big wealthy companies … so I think that is the motive that’s driving it.”

Father Miranda, however, noted: “Many people say that as these technologies are produced today by multinationals, it is capitalism and this is bad. But they don’t understand that, first, profit is not bad in itself.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo quoted Recommendation 12 of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ study document: “Intellectual property rights should not inhibit a wide access to beneficial applications of scientific knowledge.”

Ambassador Nicholson acknowledged that money could be made from intellectual property rights. “If you took that away,” he said on Vatican Radio last Thursday, “we wouldn’t have penicillin.”

A farmer who became a believer in GMOs was Sabina Kohza. The South African farmer, a one-time skeptic of GMOs, presented her 2-year-old success story with the modified crops to the Rome meeting. “I was against crop-engineering myself, but then I tried it,” she said.

The result: Kohza said she has gotten wealthier and healthier. “I can tell you that I am a very proud consumer, grower and proud rural woman in agriculture who is growing genetically modified maize,” she said, smiling.

Father Miranda referred to the writings of John Paul II where he says that “it is necessary to maintain an attitude of prudence and to explore, with a keen eye, the nature and manners of the various technologies applied.” Scientists, says the Pope, should use their “capacity for the service of all humanity.”

In this sense, Father Miranda cautioned that we should not fall into the trap of thinking that GMOs can resolve all the world’s problems of poverty and underdevelopment. Rather, the coming of GMOs can be “viewed as one of the tools in the toolbox to fix this concern.”

* * *

Evangelizing, the Sporting Way

Jude McKenna was supposed to originally travel to Rome in order to fight Cassius Clay. Instead, his first Roman trip was for a pilgrimage as a religious novice.

A professional Irish boxer, he just missed going to Australia for the 1956 Olympic Games because he was too young. Ireland “went over with five and came home with fou
r medals,” he recalled.

Four years later, as he prepared to step up to the Olympic ranks in Rome, he missed the opportunity and found his religious vocation instead. “God stepped in and saved me from who else was in my weight category!” he said.

He has since taken up professional judo because he deemed it “a little more becoming of the cloth.” Capuchin Father McKenna continues to travel in his capacity as president of Zambia judo.

He now trains African athletes for international competitions in both judo and boxing. And there’s no stopping this feisty religious, who says he owes it all to sports and spirituality.

I came upon his story when speaking with a group of Franciscan missionaries retreating in Rome recently. We were discussing the World Day of Tourism Message from John Paul II on sports. They directed me to a priest of their congregation who exemplifies this message.

In his message, the Pope says that “Sport and tourism refer first and foremost to free time, in which activities must be encouraged that foster both physical and spiritual development.”

To the average observer, it may seem a little indulgent to include the concept of spirituality with the two activities of travel and sports, but Father McKenna highlights how vital they can be in promoting universal values.

“Take the closing ceremony of the Olympics,” the Capuchin told me. “Having been to several of the Games in the last 35 years, there’s always a sadness or melancholy surrounding the end of them.”

This is because “we’re parting company with people we’ve become attached with and related with through sport and meals together; praying and hoping together,” he said.

Father McKenna’s experience of being everything from an athlete to an Olympic coach to an officially appointed Vatican chaplain for the Moscow Olympics, mirrors the considerations of his fellow sportsman, John Paul II.

The Capuchin, who is 70 but could easily pass for 50, cannot but help to promote the benefits and spirituality behind sports.

“I always believed in the value of it as a school for personal discipline,” this friar explained. “Sport gives people focus and vision. They aim for something, they train for it and many of them are or have become tremendously disciplined people. This is a quality that adds to the journey of life, making them much better citizens, fathers and mothers of the future.”

John Paul II urges the faithful to find a sport “which contributes to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.”

Such a commitment relates directly to faith, according to Father McKenna.

“Being acknowledged as a champion is no easy task for athletes — it takes commitment, sacrifice and countless hours of practice,” said. “This applies to our journey’s of faith where we work to receive our eternal reward.”

Even through many of the hardships that he witnesses daily in Africa, he sees his ministry of sports as having been very much God’s design.

He told me how at times it brought tears to his eyes to see the holistic effect that a sporting club could have on an impoverished area.

“I think that our minds, our spirits and the whole soul of man and woman all operate better via sport,” he observed. “In every dimension, where the body is kept fit and clean and pure, overall morale is improved.”

He continues this philosophy via an example close to the hearts of “his people”: “If we have a national disaster like HIV/AIDS, across the country, this physically pulls you down and effects everything else.”

These days, Father McKenna’s very presence is an advertisement for the “pure clean living” that he recommends through the recipe of sports and spirituality and traveling through cultures with both. He holds John Paul II’s statement dear that “sports are a godly endeavor when approached in prayer and love.”

* * *

Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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