Unknown to many Catholics especially in Africa, the Vatican is under intense pressure by the US government and powerful multinational corporations and lobbies to approve and promote genetically modified seeds, which it is feared will have serious consequences on agriculture in the continent and the Global South generally.
Next month the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, is expected to attend a food conference in the US, which will include an award ceremony honouring three scientists for GMO, or genetically modified organism, discoveries.
The October 16-18 symposium, dubbed the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue, will focus on a range of issues surrounding biotechnology and food production.
In July anti-GMO activist Holy Cross Brother David Andrews who works with Washington-based Food and Water Watch published an open letter to Cardinal Turkson cautioning him against the upcoming biotechnology symposium.
Bro Andrews reveals that the US government and agri-business giant Monsanto have been seeking the support of the Holy See for genetic modification of food for years. And the Vatican is divided on the issue. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences appears to favour GMOs, while the Council for Justice and Peace is against. He writes:
“As you know, the US has repeatedly advocated that the Holy See promote genetic modification of seeds as a moral obligation. The policy of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has been to resist officially adopting GMOs. While the Academy of Sciences has recurrently hosted one-sided conferences on GMOs in 2004 and 2008, the Holy See formally has not done so. Cardinal Renato Martino, your predecessor at the justice and peace office, came close but backed off, and you yourself have been quite careful.”
Last year, Cardinal Turkson co-hosted a conference on the rural world with the International Catholic Rural Association, and there was some strong criticism of industrialized agriculture, especially by Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest judicial authority.
“The typical US line on the world’s food needs and on African food production is that it needs to produce more food, with genetic modification the path to do so,” writes Br Andrews. “But African farmers overwhelmingly disagree, believing instead that agro-ecology is the better way to go: through methods of production more in harmony with their own cultures and traditions, and more realizable by small-scale farmers and women producers.”
That is exactly the position taken last month by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a coalition of pan-African networks, with members in 50 African countries and representing smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples and civil society, during a meeting in Addis Ababa to formulate an action plan to safeguard Africa’s sovereignty over its food, seeds and natural resources.
AFSA said in a communiqué that Africa’s food diversity and knowledge systems are being threatened by corporate and genetically modified seeds, agro-chemicals, resource grabs and laws that prevent farmers from freely using, sharing or selling their seed.
“These threats come from amongst others, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the G8 “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition” that strongly promote the interests of multinational seed, fertilizer and agro-chemical companies at the expense of the rights and interests of smallholder farmers.”
Currently, campaigners say 80 percent of seed in Africa is bred by smallholder farmers, who freely save and share seed, resulting in a wide diversity of agricultural crops and a safety net for food security. But all that will change if African governments accept to adopt GMOs.
Some countries have done so, with regrettable outcomes. “Bt [genetically modified] cotton production in Burkina Faso and South Africa has failed to achieve its promise. Small farmers are finding that yields and quality of Bt cotton are extremely low. For this reason Bt cotton planting this year has plunged from 400,000 hectares to 200,000 hectares in Burkina Faso,” Fatou Batta, of the Association Nourrir Sans Détruire, Burkina Faso, said.
In Ghana, activists are calling for a moratorium on GM crops after the National Biosafety Committee (NBC), with heavy support of the US, approved field tests of genetically modified rice in the Ashanti Region, and cotton field tests at six different locations in the Northern Region.
The start of field trials for Bt crops in Ghana is highly alarming because there is no scientific evidence supporting the long-term safety of genetically engineered crops, the campaign group Food Sovereignty Ghana says.
“The risks Ghana is taking by starting down the GE road are many. Bt cotton and Bt rice have the pesticide Bt in every cell of the plant, including the pollen. There is some evidence suggesting that inhaling Bt pollen can sicken people and livestock, and in some cases even cause death, as happened in Mindanao in the Philippines. There are reports that thousands of sheep in India were killed after grazing on the fields of Bt cotton after harvest. And in both Germany and India, cows eating Bt crops have died.
“Bt infected pollen can drift far and wide, pollinating normal crops, contaminating them with the Bt altered genes. Transgenic proteins, the proteins transferred from one species to another by GE technology, can potentially cause serious immune reactions including allergies. This is a serious public health issue; and warrants an immediate ban on GM crops, including field trials, until proper assessment on the immune potential of all the transgenic proteins has been carried out.”
Will the currently divided Vatican buckle under pressure and clever ploys to ignore these concerns and bless GMOs? Campaigners hope not.