Opening Up to Genetically Modified Crops

Vatican Prepares Statement as National Debates Continue

ROME, OCT. 4, 2003 ( The long-running debate over genetically modified crops is being examined by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Interest in what will be Rome’s position on the subject is running high. Last summer the Italian newspaper La Stampa ran a series of articles on the matter, starting with an Aug. 3 story that said the Vatican was opening up to the idea of approving genetically modified crops.

The paper quoted the president of Justice and Peace, Archbishop Renato Martino, as saying that it is imperative to find a way to bring food to those who are starving. He also warned against taking extremist, ideologically based positions on the question, affirming the need for rigorous scientific examination of the subject.

The latest country to weigh in is Brazil, which last week gave the go-ahead to planting modified soybeans. The decision revealed deep divisions, the New York Times reported Sept. 28. First, the government announced the green light for the seeds, then a few hours later the vice president, José Alencar, cast doubts on the approval. Finally, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva interrupted his U.N. visit in New York to overrule the vice president, who then signed the decree.

The New York Times noted it was an important decision, given that environmentalists have played a major role in Lula’s Workers’ Party since its founding over 20 years ago. The decree is valid until the end of 2004 and contains restrictions on where GM crops can be planted.

In Australia, earlier approval for GM crops came with the decision by federal authorities to permit genetically modified canola. Gene Technology Regulator Sue Meek declared the higher yielding canola hybrid was as safe for humans and the environment as conventional canola, The Australian reported July 26. The decision came too late for planting this season. As well, the major canola states have moratoriums on growing GM crops, except for cotton.

In New Zealand, the government previously announced that it was lifting a moratorium on GM crops effective this month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported April 18. Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton said a commission of inquiry had found potential benefits for New Zealand in adopting genetic modification, and the government would ensure a cautious case-by-case approach would be taken to applications to release GM organisms.

Skeptical public

In Britain, meanwhile, a number of reports have looked into GM products. The first report, from the Cabinet Strategy Office, cast doubts on the commercial attractiveness of GM crops because of consumer resistance, BBC reported July 11. The report nevertheless argued that Britain should not turn its back on the new technology, since the crops could offer wide-ranging benefits to farmers and consumers in the long term.

Environment Minister Elliott Morley said: “The report highlights that GM crops are one area in which GM technology has significant potential to contribute to the UK’s future economic prosperity and sustainability.” But he added: “It also points out that GM crops are just one possible tool for achieving our goals — important advances in crop production will also come from conventional and organic techniques.”

Shortly after, a panel of 25 experts said it found no case for ruling out GM crops in Britain as “there have been no verifiable untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects” on human health, BBC reported July 21. Yet, the GM Science Panel Review did add: “It is clear that gaps in our knowledge and uncertainties will become more complex if the range of plants and traits introduced increases.”

The experts also considered that GM crops are unlikely to lead to “superweeds.” Some GM opponents argue that the genetic variations could be passed on, leading to herbicide-resistant weeds. The British government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, who chaired the panel, said that GM crops are not a homogenous technology, and therefore applications will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The most recent report examined the results of more than 650 public meetings held around Britain, plus 37,000 replies to questionnaires, on the GM issue. The British daily Guardian reported Sept. 25 that 54% said they never want to see GM crops grown in the United Kingdom. A further 18% said they would find the crops acceptable only if there was no risk of cross-contamination; 13% wanted more research.

EU resistance

This summer the European Parliament approved two laws that allowed the European Union to lift a five-year moratorium on GM products, a move that has provoked serious differences with the United States. The laws require strict labels for GM products, the Financial Times reported July 3. All products containing more than 0.9% of GM organisms would have to be labeled as GM products.

U.S. farmers say the laws will do nothing to open the EU market, even after the ban is lifted, because the elaborate tracing provisions are impossible to meet without a costly effort to segregate all GM crops from non-GM crops.

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that governments can block the sale of GM food products, under certain conditions. The case involved Italy and genetically modified corn sold by Monsanto Company, the Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 10. Under the ruling, countries are allowed to temporarily ban the sale of GM foods that other EU authorities had approved for sale, but only if they could demonstrate a health risk.

The court relied on a rule known as the precautionary principle, which has been invoked to ban U.S. beef treated with growth-promoting hormones as well as a chemical component of some plastics. But, the court said such risks “must not be purely hypothetical or founded on mere suppositions which are not yet verified.”

Contrasting opinions

In the meantime, the battle to influence the public’s views continues. In the Guardian on June 2, Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., wrote that Europeans opposed GM products not just for health concerns but also for cultural reasons: “the last vestige of cultural identity most Europeans feel they have some control over is their choice of food.”

As to the argument that GM crops can resolve world hunger, Rifkin contested that the problem is complex and will not be remedied just by means of higher-yield crops. He also accused the large agricultural companies of wanting to monopolize the intellectual property rights of the new crops, thereby further marginalizing the farmers in poor countries.

But numerous reports support GM crops. The Danish National Environmental Research Institute found that GM crops might be better for the environment than the unmodified form. New research showed that the crops allow insects and spiders to flourish around their edges and thus provide more food for birds, the Independent reported March 13.

The International Council for Science, a Paris-based federation of more than 100 national science academies, concluded that GM crops do not pose health problems for consumers, the Financial Times reported June 6. The report looked at more than 50 important research studies.

On food safety, it found wide acceptance among scientists that current GM foods are safe. However, the report did warn that more complex products, yet to reach the market, might carry health risks. On the negative side the scientists disagreed on the impact GM crops will have on biodiversity. The Vatican’s forthcoming statement will likely add fuel to the debate.

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