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Roundup Ready religion: The Vatican and GMOs

Pressure has been mounting on to Vatican to come out in support of GMOs.

Last Modified: 22 Jun 2013 15:09
Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
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In a leaked 2009 cable, the US allegedly attempted to pressure the Vatican into supporting GMOs [AP]

A 2009 WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in the Holy See reports that “Vatican officials remain largely supportive of genetically modified crops as a vehicle for protecting the environment while feeding the hungry,  but - at least for now - are unwilling to challenge bishops who disagree”.

That the primary purpose of GMOs is not in fact to safeguard the environment is suggested by, inter alia, a 2012 study by Washington State University research professor Dr Charles Benbrook, who found that the proliferation of such crops has caused an increase in the use of hazardous pesticides in the US.

As for the claim that GMOs are a proper antidote to the problem of global hunger, it's worth reviewing renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva's observation that “[o]ne billion people are without food because industrial monocultures robbed them of their livelihoods in agriculture and their food entitlements”.

The following sound bite from Shiva's appearance last year on the BBC's HARDtalk meanwhile obliterates the notion of any positive correlation between the GMO industry and human wellbeing:

"We see the consequences of [seed patenting] in India, where, since the big companies came in and took over the seed supply - especially in cotton - we have had 270,000 farmer suicides, most of them driven by debt and the debt caused by high-cost nonrenewable seeds."

GMOs find god

In a nod to the existence of less-than-cheery visions of the biotech scene, the US embassy cable notes that Monsignor James Reinert of the Vatican Council of Justice and Peace has tempered a reportedly general ecclesiastical consensus on the need for GMOs with one caveat:

"The Vatican cannot force all bishops to endorse biotechnology, he said, particularly if their opposition has to do with concerns over protecting profits of large corporations who hold the patents for the crops, versus feeding the hungry."

Undeterred, the US ambassador concludes the cable with a pledge to “continue to lobby the Vatican to speak up in favor of GMOs, in the hope that a louder voice in Rome will encourage individual Church leaders elsewhere to reconsider their critical views”.

Nothing like a bit of diplomatic pressure to ease the travails of US-based biotech firms. So much for the separation of corporation and state.

Inside Story Americas - The controversial Monsanto Protection Act

To be sure, the US embassy is not the only source of encouragement when it comes to sanctification of GMOs by the Holy See. In a March 2013 article in USAToday - which at first glance appears to be a fine work of satire - New Jersey biotech farmer John Rigolizzo, Jr pronounces the Vatican at the “vanguard of science and technology” based on a 2009 statement by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences affirming a “moral imperative to make the benefits of genetically engineered technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations”.

After reviewing his own credentials as a Catholic, Rigolizzo touts GM crops as “miraculous” and “a blessing” and expresses his hope that the newly appointed Pope Francis will share the Vatican's established “humane vision - and that Europe and the rest of the world [will] join biotechnology's growing flock”.

Working in the new pope's favour, presumably, is that he is “not only a man of faith, but also science - a chemist, by training”, and that he hails from Argentina, “whose farmers rely heavily on GM crops”.

Dealing with the devil?

What, then, has holy science offered the homeland of Pope Francis? Some clues appear in “Argentina's Bad Seeds”, an Al Jazeera documentary coincidentally released on the same day as Rigolizzo's epistle.

Filmmaker Glenn Ellis outlines Argentina's conversion into a genetically-modified “soy republic”, a process that has produced a “dirty war in the north of the country where campesinos are being driven off their land, and sometimes killed, to make way for soya plantations”.

The majority of the seeds are manufactured by US-based Monsanto and are marketed as Roundup Ready - Roundup being Monsanto's signature glyphosate-based herbicide. That human beings might not be similarly “Roundup Ready” is suggested in Ellis' summary of the film:

“... [D]octors and scientists claim that babies are being born with crippling birth malformations and that in recent years the incidence of childhood cancer has soared. It is a phenomenon, they say, that has coincided with the introduction of Monsanto's seed."

Of course, the 2009 US embassy cable approvingly remarks that “[t]he Vatican's own scientific academy has stated that there is no evidence GMOs are harmful, and that they could indeed be part of addressing global food security”, while Rigolizzo swoons over the Vatican's “advanced and charitable view of how to defeat hunger and malnutrition”.

Such arguments become even more ludicrous when we consider the rampant absorption of farmland by GM crops for the production of biofuels rather than food.

Ultimately, any effort to cast the GMO industry in a humane light amounts to nothing less than sacrilege.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, SalonThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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