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"Pursue transgenic crops with care, respect"
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Pursue transgenic crops with care, respect
- James Ennis, Des Moines Register, July 14, 2009
As noted recently in the Register, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an independent body within the Vatican, recently endorsed transgenic plants as necessary for food security. Not all would agree, both within and outside the church.
Scientists of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a global, United Nations-backed think tank, last year rejected genetically modified crops as a solution to hunger.
Some say the Pontifical Academy, when holding its seminar on transgenic plants at the Vatican in mid-May, excluded dissenters within the church who fear that technology for genetically modified organisms allows corporate agribusiness to control agriculture and food production at the expense of the poor. An aggressive push of genetically modified seeds and crops, critics say, runs the risk of pushing out small landholders, making remaining farmers dependent on the production companies and abolishing traditional methods of seed-keeping.
So within the broad Catholic community, genetically modified organisms remain an open question. In many cases, it is not the science or the technology itself that's in question, but its application and who truly benefits if transgenic plants pervade local food-production systems around the world.
The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, based in Des Moines, has followed the issue of transgenic plants since their commercial introduction in the late 1990s. In discussions with both row-crop farmers and Catholic bishops, we came to depend on a set of principles that guide us as a people of faith in understanding use of this technology.
In the eyes of the church, human beings are co-creators who help bring the world to the fruition God intends. Technology, including genetic modification of plants, is at base a tool for doing good. But while the making of transgenic plants is morally neutral in itself, concrete applications are subject to moral judgment.
Both the promise and risk of genetically modified crops are uncertain because the technology is still relatively new and requires long-term study of environmental and human-health impacts. Each application of the technology must be evaluated on its merits and judged in light of current practice. In general, widespread commercial application of the technology should be pursued with great care.
In principle, genetically modified seeds and crops are acceptable for a just food production and distribution system, but only as they serve the common good. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops have not increased yields significantly, so the claim to food security seems overblown. The benefit appears to be little more than reducing a farmer's time in the field. Higher seed costs accrue to the very few seed companies with patenting rights.
The Pontifical Academy addressed the question whether technology for genetically modified organisms should be developed so as to better serve the needs of small-scale farmers and the poor. The promise is that their production will improve, with transgenic plants engineered to better deal with pests, drought and other agricultural challenges. The reality is that genetically modified seeds are part of a global, industrialized agri-food system that is biased toward large producers and mega-farms.
By applying precautionary principles to transgenic plants, we believe this technology has a role to play in food production and security. Failure to abide by precautionary points will:
- Accelerate the decline of agricultural biodiversity in local areas, where vast crop varieties have already been lost in the past century to monocultural practices.
- Allow a few dominant seed companies to control the supply of seeds worldwide, reaping a greater share of the food dollar at the expense of farmers and primary producers.
- Deny farmers of the world their just benefits to the development of genetic resources by their experimentation and local application.
- Threaten the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and indigenous people who depend on open access to resources, such as the traditional saving of seeds for future sowing.
Proponents of transgenic crops should not over-promise, should be respectful of alternatives and should engage critics in a responsible way. Similarly, critics should state their objections without exaggerations and engage proponents in a responsible way.
(James Ennis is executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )