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Vatican Steps into Genetic Engineering Debate

Vatican Steps in on Biotech Foods Debate
By NICOLE WINFIELD, AP

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican stepped into the charged debate over
genetically modified food on Monday, convening a conference with a view to
possibly endorsing biotech crops as a means of alleviating world hunger.
However, some participants questioned whether the symposium would treat the
issue equitably, saying it was stacked with speakers in the pro-biotech
camp, reflecting the views of its organizer, Cardinal Renato Martino.

Martino, who has frequently spoken out about the potential benefits of
biotech foods, or GMOs, opened the two-day gathering - called "GMO: Threat
or Hope" - by acknowledging the technology's far-reaching implications.
"We are fully aware that the stakes are high and delicate," he said, citing
the divide in public opinion, commercial interests and ethical questions
involved, as well as "the difficulty in defining scientifically a material
that is subject to evolving research."

The Vatican has not said when it will announce its position on GMOs, which
experts say would have a profound impact on the debate.

A Vatican endorsement would likely draw praise from the United States, where
biotech companies have been at the forefront of extolling the virtues of
GMOs, which can be made to resist insects or disease.

But it would no doubt ruffle feathers in Europe, which has imposed a
moratorium on growing or importing GMOs because of fears about the
environmental and heath risks, and in African countries such as Zambia,
which has rejected biotech food aid.

Dr. Margaret Mellon, a speaker at the symposium and a director of the
Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said she is concerned the
benefits of biotechnology for easing world hunger are overblown and may not
outweigh the risks.

Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the
Vatican's aim was to find some common ground for the benefit of mankind,
particularly the poor.

The issue of poverty and hunger is a major concern for the Vatican, which
rejects arguments that limiting family size by using contraception is one
way to improve food security in the developing world.

Martino has suggested in newspaper interviews that the controversy was more
political than scientific. He has said he suffered no ill effects from the
genetically modified foods he ate while living in New York as the Vatican's
envoy to the United Nations for 16 years.

Mellon said such arguments in favor of GMOs are not based in sound science,
since Americans only eat genetically modified corn and soy, usually in
processed forms, not genetically engineered whole foods like tomatoes or
melons.

"You certainly know people are not dropping in large numbers as a result of
consuming genetically engineered foods, but it is not the basis for a
wholesale conclusion of safety," she told a press conference.

Dr. Nam-Hai Chua, head of Rockefeller University's plant molecular biology
laboratory, countered that no one had died as a result of eating GMOs.
"As a scientist, my conclusion would be that our present regulatory
procedures are adequate to protect the safety of this kind of product," he
said.

He stressed that all products have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
"But it doesn't mean that there is something intrinsically bad or evil about
the technology. It's how we use it, and we have to use it with the proper
regulatory procedures in place."

The environmentalist group Greenpeace said the Vatican altered its lineup of
speakers for the conference at the last minute because it had so few critics
of GM technology and came under pressure from the Philippines' bishops
conference, among others, to give a more balanced view.

A Greenpeace scientist was due to address the conference on Tuesday, and a
Zambian priest who is critical of the technology was also added in late,
said Greenpeace science adviser Dr. Doreen Stabinsky.

Another anti-GMO group, the Third World Network, refused to participate
because the Vatican wouldn't allow one of its scientists to speak, limiting
the invitation to its director, who is not a scientist, Stabinsky said.

 

African priests criticise Vatican GMO conference
By Philip Pullella

ROME, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Organisers of an international Vatican seminar on
genetically modified foods came under fire from their own on Tuesday when
African priests said it should have included more Church members critical of
the crops.

The seminar, attended by experts from the United States, Europe, Asia and
Africa, is intended to help the Vatican decide whether GMOs (genetically
modified organisms) eventually get its backing which could affect the views
of millions of Catholics.

The gathering, which was closing later on Tuesday, had already come under
fire on its opening day from two speakers who said it was biased with
scientists who favour GMOs.

"We are concerned that several voices of Church leaders around the world are
not represented on these panels," two Jesuit priests said in a joint written
presentation.

The priests were Roland Lesseps, senior scientist at the Kasisi Agricultural
Training Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, and Peter Henriot, director of Lusaka's
Jesuit Centre of Theological Reflection.

They pointed to recent statements by Church leaders in the Philippines,
Brazil and South Africa, which they said had expressed "deep concerns based
on practical experiences" and were not reflected at the seminar.

In their paper, the priests quoted Pope John Paul, who has said the world
was not ready to assess the biological disturbance that could result from
what he called "unscrupulous development of new forms of plants and animal
life."

The European Union on Monday postponed a decision on whether to allow the
import of a type of genetically modified maize that would have tested its
de-facto ban on the crops.

SMALL FARMS THREATENED?

The two priests said the current design of commercially promoted GMOs was
based on an industrial model of agriculture that favours large farms at the
expense of family farms.

They warned it would "introduce a serious dependency of small-scale and
mostly poor farmers on large multinational corporations for seeds and
complementary necessities."

They said there also was a risk that alternative agriculture, such as
organic farming, would be severely limited by the use of GMOs and abrogate
the tradition in many developing countries of saving seeds each year for
replanting.

The seminar of 67 scientists, plant experts and Catholic Church
representatives, was organised by the Vatican's Council for Justice and
Peace, which deals with development issues.

It is closely watched by political, business and scientific communities
because the Vatican's position on GMOs could affect the views of millions of
Catholics across the world.

They said the assertion that GMO crops would lessen the problem of world
hunger through increased productivity "is open to direct challenge."

Dorren Stabinsky of the environmental group Greenpeace again criticised the
seminar, saying it included "an overwhelming presence of GMO advocates" and
few critics.

"In our view, this seminar adequately addresses neither the issue of GMO
(problems) nor that of solving world hunger. The question posed in the title
of this seminar -- 'GMOs: Hope or Threat' - will not be answered here," she
told the group.

The Vatican organisers and other scientists have rejected assertions that
the balance was intentionally biased against GMOs. They said sides would be
taken into consideration when the Vatican position on GMOs is eventually
formulated.

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