“Frankenfood”? Or feeding the hungry?

Published December 17, 2003

The Catholic Difference

A November conference at the Vatican helped surface one of the most important debates in global Catholic social justice circles today. The argument involves “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs. Critics call GMOs “Frankenfood” or worse. Proponents – including many Third World farmers – see GMOs as the way to feed hungry peoples whose food supply is threatened by natural disaster, insect infestation, or other blights.

GMO critics have rallied some Catholic leaders behind their anti-“Frankenfood” campaign. Last year, the bishops of South Africa declared that “it is morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food.” Some Brazilian and Filipino bishops have also condemned biotech foods. These agitations have had real effect: Catholic activists in Zambia, for example, have persuaded that government to reject food aid that includes GMOs – despite widespread hunger in Zambia.

According to the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, GMO critics raised three issues at the recent Vatican conference: possible environmental harm; possible health risks; and “potential for growing dependence upon commercial seeds and chemicals among poor farmers.” Veteran observers of Catholic “antiglobalization” activism may well suspect that the last is the nub of the matter. Studies by reputable scientists (including the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) suggest that concerns about GMO damage to the environment or GMO health risks are largely unsubstantiated and typically exaggerated. Cautions are in order, as with any developing technology, but the empirical bottom line on GMOs seems to be that they feed people, they don’t cause disease, and they don’t damage soil, water, or air.

Which leaves the commercial connection. In his report on the Vatican conference, John Allen quoted Thandiye Myeni, a South African small farm owner and chair of the Mbuso Farmers’ Association. “We don’t always want to be fed food aid,” she told the conference. “We want access to this technology so that one day we can become commercial farmers.” Do the anti-GMO activists, including bishops, priests, and religious, approve of Thandiye Myeni’s ambition? It seems unlikely. In fact, one cannot help getting the impression that the more aggressive anti-GMO activists are far more concerned with battling “globalization” and “unbridled capitalism” than they are about feeding hungry people.

That’s not just my impression, by the way. The U.S.-based Congress of Racial Equality recently blasted the environmental lobby Greenpeace for its opposition to GMOs in these uncompromising terms: “Well-fed eco-fanatics shriek ‘Frankenfoods’ and ‘genetic pollution.’ They threaten sanctions on nations that dare to grow genetically modified crops, to feed their people or replace crops that have been wiped out by insects and blights. They plan to spend $175 million battling biotech foods over the next five years. Not one dime of this will go to the starving poor. Greenpeace policies bring misery, disease, and death to millions of people in developing countries, particularly in Africa.”

Are hungry people being used as pawns in an ideological debate? That would be a nasty business indeed. GMO proponents concede that there are cautions to be observed in deploying new agro-technologies. Why won’t the critics of GMOs concede that the burden of available scientific evident is against their case? Why does the testimony of working farmers like Thandiye Myeni, who want to serve their people while making a commercial success of their farms, not count? Is it because they’re entrepreneurs?

Theological confusions are also in play here. An American Jesuit, Fr. Roland Lessups, told the Rome conference that “the right to use other creatures does not give us the right to abuse them.” Fair enough as a principle. But since when are wheat and maize “creatures”? And if the “creatures” in question are livestock, why is it “abuse” to raise cattle that are genetically resistant to certain strains of disease? Is there really a serious moral theological question here? Or are the opponents in opposition because Monsanto (to take a symbolic reference point) might actually make a profit – and help African farmers do the same?

In Zambia, the Jesuit-led resistance to GMOs convinced the government to reject a compromise solution: Zambian milling of U.S.-donated GMO relief maize. Milled maize cannot propagate, so the alleged environmental issue collapses. Yet the Jesuits led the charge against Zambian-milled GMOs. Why? Because ideology is trumping compassion and common sense?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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