The Vatican Supports Genetically Modified Crops

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 4, 2009 1:04 pm

mg20227114200-1_300.jpgAccording to New Scientist, the Vatican supports genetically modified crops to combat world hunger.

GM crops were heartily endorsed at a week-long seminar held by the academy in mid-May. Participants agreed that the crops offer food safety and security, better health and environmental sustainability.

Good.  The human population is burgeoning and we need changes in agricultural policy to keep science at pace with global food demand. In past years, the rising cost of food has led to riots around the world and exposed how vulnerable many regions are to widespread instability when price increases. Ever more limited resources combined with the need to boost agricultural yield means we’ll need genetically modified crops and the biggest hurdles will be implementing associated policies and dispelling the misinformation that plagues the public.  I may not always agree with the Vatican, but whatever their motivations may be, I’m very pleased that genetically modified crops have their blessing.

MORE ABOUT: food shortage, GMOs, vatican

Comments (37)

Links to this Post

  1. I Am Biotech: Discover. Share. Discuss. | June 8, 2009
  1. Your link to Eric Johnson’s blog entry over at Nature is odd. His opening paragraph is, in particular, supremely stupid, and it appears he has no idea that Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian (read Catholic) priest. So much for the idea that Catholicism is against scientific “meddling”.

  2. Patimus

    You can put unnatural things in your body, just not on it (condoms). I’m more confused than ever.

  3. Why is a GM ear of corn unnatural?

  4. Gaythia

    We’ve had genetically modified crops ever since the first person thought to save only the largest grass seeds to plant the next year and the years after that.

    Some possible modern commercially developed genetically modified crops may offer “food safety and security, better health and environmental sustainability”, but some may have serious long term ecological consequences.

    Sherril, I think you should tie the science behind this posting with the posting you did previously on the state of Global Conservation and biodiversity.

    The fun thing about science is that the answers to questions are so complex.

  5. Patimus

    It is unnatural, Tom, because genetically modified crops do not occur in nature.

  6. well if the Vatican supports it then i do not. any organization that states condoms are asz bad as aid doesnt get my respect

  7. Patimus

    That’s not to say I’m opposed to eating them. I do that all the time.
    I just find it strange how science is accepted by the church in one capacity but scientific fact (condoms prevent pregnancy/AIDS) can be rejected in another.

  8. It is unnatural, Tom, because genetically modified crops do not occur in nature.

    Uhh Patimus, FYI just about everything you eat then is unnatural. Why? Because just about everything has been bred (from crops to cows), in ways that would not occur in nature. Reserving the term “unnatural” to GM crops therefore would be sensationalist at best.

  9. I rarely find myself so completely opposed to anything that Sheril posts as I am this time. The case that she makes for GMO’s is the only possible justification… that it can increase yields and therefore the food supply. However, in practice, this has not been what has happened.

    The key issue is that the genetic modifications are inheritable. The easiest example to understand is that of Monsanto modifications to create “roundup ready” grass. These modifications are the creation of Monsanto and, as such, are patentable. So, any windy day on which roundup ready grass pollen blows around, the pollen may end up miles away. In Oregon, where grass seed production is a major agricultural business, if the Monsanto pollen gets on your grass, you are now in violation of their patent, even though you had no intention of producing roundup ready seed.

    This is even more serious when you start talking of lettuce that has been modified to produce insulin. Again, that modification grown outside of an enclosed laboratory, can lead to the contamination of all strains of lettuce. Such pharm crops are a danger to public health.

    If you can build in the safeguards so that you guarantee all modifications are benign, or that potentially harmful ones like some of the pharm crops, are never released into the open environment, then you might have a case. So far, such safeguards are not being practiced.

    Wes Rolley
    CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US

  10. Nice to see something rational come out of the Vatican. Now if they could also get some sanity in their positions on sex, AIDs, celebacy, and women. Tiny steps, did take nearly 400 years for them to admit they got it wrong about Galileo.

  11. A random passing physicist

    “It is unnatural, Tom, because genetically modified crops do not occur in nature.”

    And how do you think evolution works, without modifying the genetics of organisms?

    Anyway, genetic engineers often borrow the techniques of retroviruses, which have been practising genetic modification for hundreds of millions of years.

    I prefer the term ‘genetically engineered (GE) for this stuff. As noted, genetic modification includes selective breeding, which has been going on for thousands of years. Yes, it’s unnatural, but unless you subscribe to the naturalistic fallacy, that’s good. Plant naturally evolve not to be eaten, loading their flesh with ‘natural pesticides’. The artificial variety are better tested.

  12. Erica Martenson

    It is well-established that there is no shortage of food. Traditional farming practices produce more than enough food to feed the world without genetically engineering food, producing crops that may be unsafe to eat and can permanently contaminate the traditional seed supply through cross-pollination and seed mixing. Poverty is the cause of world hunger. The fact is that many people do not have the money to purchase the food that is already available in sufficient supply. For years, the biotech corporations have used world hunger as a way to prop up their sale of GE crops, which are patented and expensive and bring them greater profits than traditional crops, but that “need” has been debunked again and again. I can’t believe we are still having this conversation.

  13. Arved von Brasch

    I have nothing against GM food. (Well, actually I do. It’s not the food per se, but the patenting of genes that I can’t support).

    However, I think the GM food is a bad solution to world hunger. A better solution is to reduce the population. I think population control is ultimately in the long term interests of humanity. If GM food becomes commonplace and solves the current problems, then in 50 years time, we’re just right back to where we are now, with a much, much larger world population and the same percentage of people living in extreme poverty with little access to food.

  14. MadScientist

    The question is: what advantages does ‘GM’ bring? Is it a significant advantage over the genetic manipulation being achieved via selective breeding or is it one giant propaganda campaign?

    The biggest impact that I can see with the pope’s statement is that perhaps those communities in Africa who are being starved by being scared off the US GM corn which is donated might consider eating the stuff rather than feeding it to the rodents and weevils.

    A related issue is when do we stop hoping to squeeze blood from a stone? The world population grows irresponsibly and the general attitude is that technology will develop to ensure that everyone can be housed, fed, clothed, etc. In the meantime the environment is exploited and damaged far more each year while the population growth has a clear lead over technological developments in the race to save/destroy the planet. How much wasteland do we create before deciding the status quo is not sensible?

  15. Isn’t everything that we eat “genetically modified”?

  16. MadScientist

    @SkepticSnarf: That’s not a sensible attitude at all. You should look at the merits of a claim rather than select your stance based solely upon the claim of an organization you don’t like. Even idiots don’t get things wrong all the time, although if you ask them how they arrived as some conclusion the response is likely to have you rolling on the floor laughing hysterically.

  17. MadScientist

    @Curious Wavefunction: Technically, yes; humans have been selectively propagating plants over many centuries and many years after Mendel’s experiments there has been a colossal effort in selective plant propagation. Even work on a single subject such as hybridization of roses fills volumes.

    What tends to be called ‘GM’ are plants modified using gene splicing techniques rather than selective propagation. The scaremongers like to say things such as “they’re putting a PIG GENE into a TOMATO!” Such statements only show their ignorance of genetics; organisms have so much in common you can make the specious argument that tomatoes already have pig, fish, and human genes in them. Oh no – eating a tomato is cannibalism! The general argument is that these “monsters” will somehow destroy the world.

  18. MadScientist

    @TomJoe:

    I have no idea where you get your facts, but Gregor Mendel was a monk, not a priest. Also, if you look at my post above you will see what is usually understood by the misnomer “GM”. I see nothing in Johnson’s article to substantiate your claim that his first paragraph is “supremely stupid”. Until now the unofficial stance of the church seems to have been that selective propagation was just humans helping nature along and since plants have no soul there are no religious issues. However, gene splicing was a case of scientists playing god and the church didn’t like that. Johnson’s broad assertions happen to be correct.

  19. Revyloution

    The real trick will be to see if we can get it Kosher as well :)

  20. MadScientist

    @Revyloution: Good call. Any news on whether the mostly-featherless chickens developed in Israel can be made kosher/halal?

  21. @MadScientist: Gregor Mendel was indeed a monastic, and he was also ordained a priest in 1847. If you’re going to criticize someone about their facts, perhaps you should check your own first.

  22. TomJoe is correct in that a good deal of the food we consume is genetically modified. Erica points out that much of the problem so far has been about distribution, but looking to projected population models over the next half century–it will soon be about quantity.

    Genetic modification does not mean creating something dangerous, but it allows us to understand how to develop crops that will grow more efficiently on marginal lands and more. And no, GMO’s are not a big biotech conspiracy, but the result of a lot of sound research coming out of the nation’s top R01 universities as well as private industry.

    This thread is pretty demonstrative of what I meant by misinformation plaguing the public.

  23. @Arved von Brasch:

    Such is the issue at heart in Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. I agree that GM crops are no panacea, but on such a contentious issue as population growth, I can’t imagine that we will ever address the root issue of overpopulation. It’s simply too politically dangerous of an issue to confront head-on.

    In Biology freshman year, during a lab I had to present the flip-side to GM crops for a group presentation. I simply couldn’t find any hard, solid evidence that such technology was dangerous. If anything, I think the issue at hand behind GMO’s has to do with the ever-growing power and influence of corporations within our society than with health-related issues.

  24. Patimus

    @TomJoe-
    I admitted to eating GM foods, but, by definition, they are unnatural. I have to trust that the groceries I buy are safe to eat, because the only alternative is growing and raising food myself, but I’m pretty sure most seeds and seedlings which are widely available are genetically engineered as well. I could raise my own livestock, but I’d rather just take the butcher’s word for it.
    The point I tried to make was that the church has a tendency to contradict itself. If food being genetically modified, then consumed by humans is good, then birth control and AIDS prevention are even better.
    Hmmm, birth control, what a novel concept, because it seems as though the primary reason, as stated above, we need GM foods is poverty, which is a result of overpopulation and competition for survival.
    I think the widespread use of condoms would be beneficial, unless being critically overpopulated is a good thing.

  25. Zachary

    I agree that this is a good thing in itself. Would that it could undo the damage done by their anti-birth control insanity.

  26. The Church also supports paedophilia.

  27. Gaythia

    It seems to me that the major differences between previously available hybridization methods of genetic modification and genetic engineering have to do with quickly making genetic changes that are more specific. Like many scientific methods and technologies, it offers great hope or could be misused. Even natural genetic modification can have negative consequences. For example, we’ve been repeatedly told recently that the H1N1 virus may evolve on its own into something that is more lethal to humans.

    In evaluating the ecological impact of either continuing on our current path or implementing any change in crop management fairly complex and long term effects need to be evaluated.

    I hope that the Obama administration will support very proactive and scientifically based governmental agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Agriculture Department. I believe that credible and independent evaluations of these sorts of issues and the implementation of effective and reasonable regulations will go a long way towards improving public acceptance.

  28. jelena

    Sheril, I am confused. How can policy that forces farmers to purchase new seed each year instead using grains from good crops in previous years be good (i.e.genetically modified corn)? doesn’t policy as it stands now in the US with GM foods do potentially more harm, especially give the reliance on credit and debt for farmers?

  29. Tuatara

    Farmers have been buying seeds year after year from companies for decades. GMOs do not change what is already the status quo of agriculture. There are many reasons that it can be advantageous for a farmer to buy new seeds every season, but the key reason is heterosis, also known as hybrid vigor.

    The way plant breeding works is that crop scientists select certain traits for many generation through artificial selection. This process usually necessitates that plants are inbred as part of the breeding program. As you have probably heard, you should not do two thing in life: 1) Square dancing and 2) Inbreeding. Inbreeding is bad and means that a lot of deleterious recessive mutations are expressed. Can you say “freaks!” But alas, there is a solution to inbreeding. It is very simple. Just find another independently derived inbred line and cross your favorite inbred line to it. The result is a super hybrid plant. This plant produces way more than any old heirloom variety and in addition, all of the plants are totally genetically uniform, but uniform without being inbred. This is totally awesome for a lot of reasons, but most significantly because these plants will all mature around the same time, which means that they can be easily harvested by machines. Harvesting by machines means that less folks have to work in agriculture and can spend more time writing blogs and whatever they do in modern society. The downside is that the seeds of the hybrid plants are highly variable as a result of the first and second laws of Mendelian genetics. These plants will not mature at the same time and some of them will just plain suck.

    Bottom line, genetic modification is not the reason that farmers buy seeds every year, it is becasue of hybrid breeding, which has been going on for decades. Farmers buy seeds every year because they want to and because those hybrid seeds give them big yields that makes them some cash money.

  30. J-Le,
    I had genetics expert Tuatara take that question and he’s right on about hybrid breeding.

    Happy to see you visit the blog. Now come visit Durham :)

  31. MadScientist

    @TomJoe: I apologize; you’re right, Mendel became a priest.

  32. Gaythia

    I agree with most of what Tuatara says about hybrid breeding and GMO’s and the status quo of agriculture. But I am concerned by Tuatara’s (seemingly dismissive) reference to “any old heirloom variety”, and also at the way that Tuatara seems to brush off concerns of some farmers. Gardeners know, for example, that the properties currently selected by commercial growers for tomatoes are no match for the heirloom varieties on taste or flavor. Without proper regulation and monitoring, genetic modifications can drift into adjacent fields and into native plants with unintended consequences. Growing crops as near monocultures world wide can lead to crops that are vulnerable to diseases or not adaptable to new conditions such as that brought on by climate change. Developing nations do have real objections to large corporations coming in to sample plants that they have informally improved over time and, without proper compensation, turning them into patented products that then must be purchased back. Large numbers of agricultural workers world wide cannot easily segue into other livelihoods, let alone blog writing.

    Biodiversity needs to be maintained, as Sherril brought up in a previous seemingly unrelated blog posting. GMO’s can be an issue, but not uniquely so. Since I’ve also lived near Durham, I’d point to kudzu as an example of problems with the introduction of plants outside of their native areas.

    I believe that genetic modification techniques offer huge potentials as well as pitfalls. As someone who lives in the arid west, I am very intrigued by proposals that would allow raising grains as perennial plants rather than annuals. Eliminating regular plowing and allowing the development of strong root systems would seem to be very beneficial.

    I doubt that many of us here are geneticists or agronomists. I don’t believe that we all need to be. I would prefer to see the issues and questions raised as posts to this blog (and other blogs) as indicating varying degrees of prior knowledge, and yet possibly legitimate concerns. I believe that science is complex and not prone to pat yes/no answers.

  33. JARL

    “The human population is burgeoning”

    What a laugh. Our population is no burgeon, it’s a planet-wide infestation actively eradicating all other species on Earth for the dubious sake of increasing its own numbers. If you keep feeding us we will keep breeding in ever greater numbers until there is no remaining wildlife on land or in water, just us staring at each other. It’s a sad, pitiful situation when we have so overgrown the world’s capacity that we need to alter nature just to eat.

  34. eleanor

    Patimus – not sure if your question about why GM foods are OK but condoms are not is legitimate, or if you just have a beef with the Catholic Church (..understandable).

    GM foods may be no more “natural” than condoms are, but they do not interefere with reproduction–with the chance of conception, which I believe Catholics would say should be left up to God….it’s not a perspective that I necessarily agree with, and it can be picked away at, of course–but it is also not one that is necessarily inconsistent with an acceptance of GM foods (which won’t interefere with the chance a child might be conceived……well, maybe they would, but that’s another can of worms).

  35. marcia

    Pontifical Academy of Science is run by the Legion of Christ whose Vicar General is Fr Luis Garza. LC. He is the son of Mexican billionaire, Alfonso Romo Garza. Together with the infamous late founder of the Order, Marcel Maciel they founded Integer Group.The corporation promotes both the Legion’s International Schools and Monsanto amongst other businesses…Garza cornered the market on vegetable seeds……….and that is how one uses the Vatican as a PR tool……….
    http://dirtsecrets.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/chapter-17/

  36. Jason

    Search on Google….corn is being modified to incorporate genes from such things as the A.I.D.S. virus….. go ahead fools, eat up! It has been proven in lab tests to sterilize the rats it is fed to, as well as cut their life expectancy in half.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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