Despite lobbying from both sides of the genetically modified food debate, the Vatican thus far has maintained a neutral, “let science take its course” stance on the issue. So when the African cardinal newly appointed to head the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace seemed to express a greater emphasis on caution with bioengineered food, it made headlines. 

“Vatican’s perspective on GMO: Signaling winds of change?” asked GMO Journal. 

For those who don’t follow the debate closely, Cardinal Peter Turkson’s comments seemed fairly mild. “There are a lot of claims that are disputed [like] that GMOs never call for the use of pesticides or insecticides or anything because they are resistant,” he told the Catholic News Service. “I think that we should go easy and probably satisfy all of these objections to the full satisfaction of those who raise these objections.” 

‘Good health’ 

The cardinal’s predecessor at the justice and peace council, Italian Cardinal Renato Martino was seen as more open to the idea of genetically modified foods. He hosted a conference on the topic and once told reporters at a Vatican press conference that he was walking proof of the safety of bioengineered foods. After working 16 years in the United States and eating lots of GM food, he laughingly said, “I’m in good health, at least I think so. ... Up to now, I’ve had no undesirable effects.” 

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been at the center of a heated debate ever since the first bioengineered Flavr Savr tomato hit the shelves in 1994. Today, although only a handful of modified crops have achieved commercial success, GMOs account for a large percentage of food staples. 

According to Monsanto, the corporation that controls the vast majority of GM seed production, “some 70 percent of the food products on your supermarket’s shelves may contain ingredients from a genetically modified crop.” Most of these ingredients are derived from corn, soybeans, cotton and canola, the four biggest GMO crops. 

Genetic modification can involve a number of different procedures. The simplest forms involve splicing together genetic material from plants that could be bred conventionally. Genetic techniques, in this case, are used to speed up a process that would ordinarily require many generations. In most cases GMOs are made by inserting genes from unrelated species into an organism. In the case of foods, this usually means the introduction of DNA from other plants or from bacteria which have resistances to the pests and diseases that reduce crop yields. 

The issue of GMO foods is highly politically loaded. Those in favor laud GMOs as a solution to world hunger and food security. Monsanto claims that their seeds help farmers double their yields, use fewer key resources to achieve the same level of production, decrease water use, reduce habitat destruction and create solutions for sustainable development. 

Food monopoly 

Some opponents oppose GMOs in principle, believing that scientists are “playing God” or usurping the rights of Mother Nature — a position that the Vatican has not endorsed. 

Most critics, including those within the Church, are more concerned about how GM technologies are implemented. They point to growing food monopolies, loss of biodiversity and a perceived lack of sufficient regulation to ensure the safety of GMO products. 

Independent farmers in North America have had to pay substantial damages to Monsanto for the illegal use of proprietary seed, which the farmers claim was unintentionally blown into their fields. Opponents also blame Monsanto and its subsidiaries for the nearly 200,000 farmer suicides that have taken place in India over the past 13 years; many of the bankrupt farmers were growing Monsanto’s Bt cotton, and took their lives by drinking Monsanto pesticides. 

Opponents of GM foods tend to claim that messing with the genome necessarily brings about unintended mutations, that the side-effects of GM foods are insufficiently established, and that genetic modification procedures risk injuring the nutritional value of food-stuffs. 

Monsanto points out that GM foods have been consumed safely for more than 13 years, and that national and international bodies exist to study the safety of GMOs before they are introduced to the public. 

Critics, however, argue that Monsanto has been caught in the past using unethical tactics to push their products past governing agencies, as was found to be the case when Health Canada was offered bribes to approve Bovine Growth Hormone for use in milk production in 1999. 

Sterile seed 

Risks to the environment may be significant, particularly where there is inadequate environmental legislation for protection of biodiversity. GM producers tend to grow a relatively low number of cultivars which are aggressively marketed in order to recoup the costs of research. Many organic farmers have complained of unintended cross-pollination between neighboring GM farms and their own crops, making it difficult to preserve traditionally grown varieties free of the modified strains. 

Concerns about social justice center around the proprietary nature of GM seed, and the ethical behaviors of the multinational corporations that produce them. Traditionally, farmers have been able to save their own seed from year to year, so that with careful stewardship, it is possible to avoid purchasing seed unless they wish to start a new crop. GM seeds are patented, which means that it is illegal to save and replant seed from previous years. 

‘Poverty weapon’ 

Realistically, the extent to which these concerns apply varies from product to product. The method used to modify an organism, the degree of corporate responsibility practiced by the patent owners, and the nature of modifications are important ethical factors. 

But Cardinal Turkson seems to have reservations. 

His greatest concerns are about the effect of GMOs on small farmers. Although he acknowledges the legitimate right of GM companies to recoup the costs of research, he fears that “the declared desire to want to help feed humanity” may be overshadowed by the desire for profit. If GMOs are introduced in a spirit of corporate profiteering, rather than a genuine interest in universal solidarity, “what is meant to alleviate hunger and poverty may actually in the hands of some people become really weapons of infliction of poverty and hunger.” 

Melinda Selmys writes from Canada.

How Do I Know If it's GMO? (sidebar)

The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that 70-75 percent of the processed foods sold in American grocery stores contain genetically modified ingredients. But you won’t know which; the Food and Drug Administration — unlike its European counterpart — does not require GM food labeling. That makes it difficult for people who want to avoid GM foods, whether for health, ecological or social justice reasons. But here is some handy consumer information: 

  • Some of the most common GM applications are in corn (corn starch, glucose-fructose, dextrose, maltodextrin, corn syrup, sorbitol), soybeans (soy lecithin, soy protein, soy milks, tofu), canola, cotton (margarine and vegetable oil) and dairy. 
  • Only foods labeled “100-percent organic” are certified to be produced without genetic modification. 
  •  Know how to read produce stickers. If it is a 4-digit number, the food is conventionally produced. If it is a 5-digit number beginning with an 8, it is definitely genetically modified. If it is a 5-digit number beginning with a 9, it is organic.