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Catholic Priest Says GMOs Are Going to Create Famine And Hunger

While the Pontifical Academy for Sciences discussed the pros of genetically modified organisms on Monday, Columban Missionary Fr. Sean McDonagh was across Rome making the case for the "con" point of view. McDonagh organized a small demonstration near the Piazza del Popolo, which was joined by a few left-of-center political movements in Italy. A large banner read, "No to GMOs, yes to food security," and a smaller sign addressed the Vatican gathering: "Pontifical Academy of Sciences, do not ally with those who, promoting GMOs, contribute to hunger in the world. Listen to the words of the Holy Father!" A well-known writer on environmental themes, McDonagh is a veteran Irish missionary who spent more than 20 years in the Philippines. He's an outspoken critic of GMOs; in 2003, he published Patenting Life? Stop! Is Corporate Greed Forcing us to Eat Genetically Engineered Food? McDonagh spoke to NCR on the margins of the demonstration.

Q: Promoters of GMOs bill them as a strategy for combating hunger. Why do you claim the exact opposite?

At the moment, almost all GMOs (canola, Bt corn, soy) are actually animal feeds. You're getting more of a meat dimension in the diets of people all over the world. It's estimated that with a traditional Asian diet, including a little bit of meat, we could support about eight to nine billion people on the planet. But if we go down the European route of eating a lot of meat, we'll able to support maybe one and one-half to two billion. In other words, the direction GMOs take us is going to create famine and hunger in many parts of the world. That's number one.

Number two is because all genetically modified seeds are now patented, you're giving enormous control to a handful of corporations over the seeds of the staple crops of the world. It started with rice, then corn, now they're looking to wheat and potatoes. This should be totally unacceptable to anyone. Forget about the science of whether they're safe or not. To give six Western corporations, in the United States and Europe, control over the seeds of the world is outrageous.

I have a particular problem with patenting living organisms. It entered our human reality through a decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in 1980, with Diamond v. Chakrabarty. It was never discussed in any parliament of the world. This extraordinary control, I would even call it domination, has been given to corporations. This, by the way, comes at the same time that these same people are promoting 'free trade.' The levels of mischievousness and deceit involved are actually gargantuan. If free trade is good, why shouldn't sharing knowledge freely be good?

I come at it from the perspective of a missionary. I lived in the Philippines for 25 years, and I saw the mixed results, even of the Green Revolution, on the poor. GMOs will only exacerbate that, because not only will you have to buy your seeds, but you also have to buy the glyphosate, which is the Ready Roundup (a herbicide manufactured by Monsanto designed for use with genetically modified crops.) You're getting crops now with multiple traits genetically engineered into them. There may be all kinds of problems with human health and the environment, but even if there weren't, you might not want these traits.

Q: What about claims of dramatically improved yields?

The point of the recent "Failure to Yield" report from the Union of Concerned Scientists is that the increase in yield in crops over the last 25 to 30 years has come from conventional breeding. It has nothing to do with GMOs at all, or very little. This report was just published two weeks ago. I would consider it a very objective study. It looks at soy, at corn, at canola, and so on. There's no increase in yields at all, which there was in the Green Revolution, so it's quite different.

My main concern, however, is giving this control to corporations. For example, 60 percent of lettuce in the United States is now controlled by Monsanto. This is frightening. In the 19th century, all kinds of securities and exchanges agencies were created to move in on monopolies. Of course, those were monopolies on things like telephones. Now they want to build a monopoly on food. That, mind you, is precisely what they're after.

Feeding the world is about distributing food to those who need it, or distributing land so that people can grow their own food. I always give the example of Brazil. It's now the fourth largest exporter of food in the world, mainly animal feeds for Europe and America, and yet 35 to 36 million people go to bed hungry there every night.

Even if GMOs did increase the yield, is that extra food going to go to the people who need it? The reality is it won't, because Monsanto is not the St. Vincent DePaul Society. They're out there to make a big profit. They want to get monopoly control, and they make no bones about that.

All the experts at Catholic development agencies have taken the position that this is not the way to address food security, and that there's no magic bullet for hunger. What's needed is land reform, financial aid to small-scale farmers, markets where they can get value so they're not caught by the middle man. I've spent 40 years at this sort of work, and I know that's the way forward.

We also need to promote diversity in the diet. This is the whole problem with the supposed "golden rice." Why should you say to poor people that they have to eat rice three times a day? Why not a little bit of vegetables, so they'd get all the vitamin A they need? To me, it's extraordinary that $100 million has been spent on golden rice, when you could make a lot of vegetable seeds available in developing countries for that kind of money.

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