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The Vatican, GE food and the Eucharist

30 November, 1999

Columban missionary Sean McDonagh SSC examines some of the issues raised by recent Vatican attention to the arguments about genetically engineered crops.

The proponents of genetically engineered crops argue that genetically engineered food is necessary to feed a growing world population. In 1992 Monsanto’s chief executive, Robert Shapiro spoke along these lines in a long interview with Joan Magretta in the Harvard Business Review.

In August 2003, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Martino, Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace seemed to favour this argument. It was reported in many newspapers around the world that the Vatican was preparing an official report on plant biotechnology which would come down in favour of genetically modified foods. The reason given for the Vatican’s position was that GE crops would help alleviate starvation and malnutrition.

These reports alarmed bishops in many Third World countries. Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of Marbel in Mindanao, who has been in the forefront of a campaign to prevent the planting of Bt corn in the Philippines, implored the Cardinal not to endorse GE crops. For him, and many other bishops and religious leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a Vatican endorsement for GE crops would strengthen the hand of transnational corporations who are browbeating Third World countries into accepting GE technology.

Threats to human health
Many people are concerned about the health hazards posed by genetically engineered crops. The British Medical Association (BMA) has highlighted the concern that anti-biotic resistance genes used in genetically engineered plants would make life saving antibiotics ineffective. There is also a concern that GE foods will exacerbate the current increase in allergies, especially in children. This needs to be thoroughly researched before these plants are grown commercially.

In February 2004 Dr. Terjee Traavik, a professor of Gene Ecology at the University of Tromo in Norway reported that he had found increased levels of three antibodies from blood samples of several members of the B’lann tribe in South Cotabato in the Philippines. Those affected were living near a farm in which Bt corn was grown in 2003. Dr. Traavik said that early warning signs that the patients exposure to delta endotoxin from the nearby Bt corn plot may have induced coughing, cold, fever, abdominal pains, headaches, ‘flu, nausea, body weakness, difficulty in breathing and vomiting. Traavik admitted that further research would be needed to establish a cause-and-effect link between the production of antibodies against Bt toxin and the diseases which the people complained of. In the face of criticism by some pro-GMO scientists that the information should not have been released until the research was peer-reviewed, Dr. Traavik defended his decision to share his preliminary results with the public, especially those who were potentially affected by the Bt corn. He wrote: “Such reports are necessary to inform other scientists and regulators, giving them the opportunity to “anticipate and prevent”, and should be followed up by further research to reveal the validity of the warning.”

Research urges caution
It seemed to be a strange time for the Vatican to be thinking of endorsing GE food. In October 2003 the results of the world’s most comprehensive scientific review of GE crops compiled by scientists from both pro- and anti-GE lobby was published in Britain. The group was chaired by the chief scientist in Britain, Sir David King. The report, unexpectedly, emphasised the uncertainties and potential dangers of the crops rather than the advantages. It urged caution and called for more studies to protect the environment and the consumer.

The study evaluated the 3 years field scale trials on GE oil seed rape, sugar beet and corn. It concluded that GE oil seed rape and sugar beet should not be grown in Britain because of its negative impact on biodiversity. These appear to do more harm to the environment than conventional crops. GE maize, on the other hand, seems to allow for the survival of more weeds and insects and may be approved. The commission that carried out the study recommends that farmers who are growing GE crops should set up a fund to compensate conventional farmers whose crops have been contaminated by GE crops. The biotech industry is opposed to this development.

The research predicted that GE oil seed rape would readily cross with wild relatives creating hybrids that would carry GE genes into the countryside. These crops could become herbicide resistant and thus confirm all the fears about superweeds. Furthermore, some hybrids could be fertile. These could interbreed with other varieties of the brassica family. Studies conducted in Britain on GE oilseed rape showed that farms could be infested with ‘feral’ plants for 16 years from a single crop. Only heavy spraying with chemical would kill them off.

Contaminating wild plants
The scientists were also concerned about the distance over which commercial crops could cross-fertilise with wild plants. Scientists found that GE pollen from trial sites of oilseed rape had traveled 16.1 miles. It was probably transported there by bees. This is six times the previously estimated maximum distance for such pollen to travel and raises the question whether it is sensible and proper to grow GE crops at all in countries which have wild relatives capable of producing hybrids. It also raises questions about the separation requirements that would be necessary to avoid contaminating conventional crops. Given the fact that oilseed rape travels six times further than previously thought in countries like Ireland and Britain organic farms would be contaminated within a few years.

Studies in Britain focused on the effect of GE crops on wildlife. One expert predicts that GE crops will cause the extinction of skylarks. One of the chemical sprays used for GE beet would wipe out a weed known as fat hen, which produces seed that are vitally important for the diet of skylarks. According to the RSPB, other birds at risk include the yellowhammer, tree sparrow and corn bunting. Numbers of the latter have fallen by 95 percent in the past 25 years.

Higher yield claim disputed
At the moment there are no claims that GM crops give higher yields. In fact according to a study at the University of Nebraska, recorded yields for Monsanto’s Roundup maize that were 6.7 1 per cent less than those for non-GM varieties and required two to five times more herbicides than non-GM varieties. A 1998 study of over 8,000 field trials found that Roundup Ready soya seeds produced 6.7 to 10 percent fewer bushels of soya than conventional varieties. Early in 2003 a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University published an analysis of the GE crops which biotech companies are developing for Africa. Among the plants studied by the researcher, Aaron de Grassi, were cotton, maize and sweet potato. He discovered that conventional breeding procedures and good ecological management produced a far higher yield at a fraction of the cost. The GE research on sweet potato is now approaching its 12th year and has involved the work of 19 scientists. To date it has cost $6 million. Results indicated that yield has increased by 18 percent. On the other hand conventional sweet potato breeding working with a small budget has produced a virus-resistant variety with a 100 percent yield increase.

Christian Aid has concluded that GE crops will cause unemployment, exacerbate Third World debt, threat sustainable farming systems and damage the environment. In fact it predicts famine for the poorest countries. African Government have also disputed Monsanto’s claim that GE food is necessary to feed the world. “We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us …. We believe it will destroy our diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and …undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”

The final nail in the ‘feed the world’ argument is that, to date, the majority of GE crops are being grown not to feed poor people but as animal feed. It takes approximately 5 kilos of plant protein to produce on kilo of animal protein. Therefore those concerned about feeding poor people ought to be promoting a human diet which is predominantly based on cereals, root crops and vegetables. Such a diet is much healthier for the human consumer.

Use of fewer chemicals disputed
Claims that GE crops leads to fewer chemicals in agriculture is also questionable. A comprehensive study using US government data, on the use of chemicals on GE crops was carried out by Charles Benbrook. He is head of Northwest Science and Environment Policy at Sandpoint, Idaho. He found that when GE crops were first introduced they needed 25 percent fewer chemicals for the first three years. In 2001, 5 percent more chemicals were sprayed compared to conventional crop varieties. Dr. Benbrook stated that: “the proponents of biotechnology claim GE varieties substantially reduce pesticide use. While true in the first few years of widespread planting ….. it is not the case now. There’s now is clear evidence that the average pound of herbicide applied per acre planted herbicide tolerant varieties have increased compared to the first few years.”

Why is it impossible to get insurance on GE food if it is so safe? If GE crops are so safe isn’t it astonishing that growers cannot get insurance cover. The main farming under writing companies view GE foods much as they viewed asbestos, thalidomide and acts on terrorism in the past. A study carried out in Britain by Farm (an advocacy group for small farmers) insurers feel that not enough is known about the long-term effects of GE crops on human health or the environment to warrant insuring them. NFU Mutual one of the insurance companies most closely linked with agriculture told Farm “NFU Mutual will not indemnify the insured in respect of any liability arising from the productions, supply of, or presence on the premises of any genetically modified crop, where liability may be attributed directly or indirectly to the genetic characteristics of the crop. In particular, no indemnity will be provided in respect of liability arising from the spread or threat of spread of genetically modified organism characteristics into the environment or any change to the environment arising from research into, testing of, or production of genetically modified organism”. NFU Mutual is not alone in taking such a stance towards GE crops. The Agricultural Insurance Underwriters Agency has an exclusion clause for liability arising from GE crops. It does not anticipate any change in this position in the near future. Surely this is the most damning indictment of GE foods. If they are so safe why will no one insure them?

Few consumers are not demanding GE food. In Britain a wide consultation was conducted in 2003 involving over 28,000 people. There was a clear message to the British government and the retail trade. Only 2 per cent said that the crops are acceptable in ‘any circumstances’. Only 8 percent were happy to eat GE food.

Vatican Seminar
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace held a two-day consultation seminar on GE crops in Rome on November 10 and 11, 2003. In the run-up to the seminar the Chair of NASSA (National Secretariat for Social Action – Justice and Peace) in the Philippines, Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez challenged Cardinal Martino to listen to both sides of the argument before making an judgement in favour of GE food. In letter to the Cardinal dated November 3, 2003 he expressed alarm over the alleged bias in favour of GMOs by the panelists chosen for seminar. According to Bishop Gutierrez the majority of the individuals on the panel “are those known to have some bias for GMOs or have been connected with institutions/companies promoting GMOs”. Bishop Gutierrez proposed the inclusion of two experts Dan Leskein, an adviser to the Greens in the European Parliament and biosafety expert Dr. Mae Wan Ho.
The pro-GMOs sentiment seemed to surface again in a press release issued after the seminar. It stated that the Pontifical Council will not fail to offer its contribution to enlighten consciences so that plant biotechnologies are an opportunity for all, not a threat. The statement continued (The Pontifical Council will keep, among other things, three elements in mind,): “Solidarity in trade relations among nations … environmental safety and the health of all … (and) understanding between scientific world, civil society, and political authorities at the national and international level.” The first part of the text leans towards approving GE food while the second urges caution. It is worth noting that the statement overlooks any concern for food-security for poor countries. This is strange since the reason the Pontifical Council gave for addressing the issue in the first place was the need to feed hungry people.

Despite the pleas for balance from Bishop Gutierrez the majority of the 20 speakers whom the Cardinal Martino invited were strongly in favour of GE foods. Doreen Stabinsky, a geneticist and adviser to the genetic engineering campaign of Greenpeace, told the conference that she almost turned down the invitation to speak because of the overwhelming presence of GE advocates.

Huge financial gains
Margaret Mellon, the director of the food and environmental programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists praised the Vatican for pointing to the ethical dimension of the genetic engineering debate. Commenting on the fact that more pro-GE scientists were invited she pointed out that the scientific establishment and individual scientists have strong interests in the outcome of the debate, in particular, in seeing that genetic engineering succeeds. She called attention to the huge financial gains that will be made by corporations and individual scientists.

Interestingly the few opponents of GE crops, like Fr. Roland Lessups, SJ, senior scientist at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Lusaka, Zambia received the invitation to the seminar only two weeks before the event. This gave him little time to prepare a comprehensive case against GE food. Besides, only speakers who had supported GE crops were invited to the press conference with Cardinal Martino. They also said that “we are concerned that several voices of Church leaders around the world are not represented on these panels”. At the press conference Cardinal Martino seemed to put himself in the camp of those who were enthusiastic about GE foods. He stated that GE crops “should not be abandoned, even if they still need a lot of cures”.

In October 2003 I sent Cardinal Martino a copy of my recently published book Patenting Life? Stop! The cardinal responded by email and stated that: “In any case, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace did conduct a study seminar in which the thoughts and opinions of more than seventy people were shared. The discussion covered the fullest range of positions and provided the Pontifical Council with a wealth of information, as was our goal”. (I am sure that neither Bishop Gutierrez or Fr. Lessups would accept the assertion the discussion covered the fullest range of positions seeing that most of the presenters were from the pro-GMO lobby).

The Cardinal’s email continued: “Your book Patenting Life will help to add to that knowledge and understanding. Please understand that it never was the intention of the Pontifical Council to use the seminar as a vehicle by which it would endorse or denounce the technology surrounding GMOs. It was our intention to become better informed on the subject.”

Clash of perspectives
It is obvious that there is a clash between Cardinal Martino’s perspective on the Vatican seminar and that shared by Fr. Roland Lessups, SJ, his colleague Fr. Henriot and Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace. This divergence is also evident in what the Cardinal stated at the press conference and in what he wrote in his email to me. Hopefully, despite the preponderance of the pro-GMO lobby at the seminar, enough doubts have been raised at the scientific, development, ethical and theological levels to ensure that the Pontifical Commission does not endorse GE crops.

The Cardinal also seems not to be aware that support for GE crops also means supporting the patenting of living organisms – seeds and animals. I would have thought that the Vatican, in line with its pro-life policies, would be implacably opposed to patenting life – because of the crucial ethical issues involved in any claim to patent life. Patents threaten food security, sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources, compromise healthcare and impede scientific research. In my book Patenting Life? Stop I argue that: “patenting life is a fundamental attack on (the) understanding of life as interconnected, mutually dependent and a gift of God given to all. It opts for an atomized, isolated understanding of life. It is also at variance with the Judeo-Christian conviction that freedom, openness and possibility are the hallmarks of life in God’s creation.”

GE wheat and the Eucharist
The agribusiness corporation Monsanto is vigorously promoting its latest GE product, genetically engineered wheat, for planting in the spring of 2004. The battle lines are currently being drawn. In North Dakota the House of Representatives passed a moratorium on biotech wheat which was later overturned by the Senate. One of the problems facing farmers is that nearly half of the US wheat crop is exported and consumers in priority markets like Europe, Japan have indicated that they do not want genetically engineered wheat.

This poses a different problem for Catholic Church which uses only wheat for celebrating the Eucharist – the central celebration of the Christian community. Canon 924 section 2 stipulates that “the bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption”. But genetically engineered wheat is not made solely from wheat……

For example, people who suffer coeliac disease are unable to absorb gluten, a protein found in wheat. Eating even small amounts of wheat can make them sick. In recent decades it has been possible to extract the gluten from wheaten bread so that people can eat bread without endangering their health. Despite the fact that gluten-wheat poses a health threat, which can often be serious, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated in a reply in 1982 that “the local Ordinary could not permit a priest to consecrate special gluten-free hosts for the communion of coeliacs”. The ruling did not touch on the validity of using such breads only on the lawfulness.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith returned to this question in a letter dated August 24, 1994. The Prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger circulated a statement on Norms for the Use of Low-Gluten Bread and Mustum as matter for the celebration of the Eucharist. The document states in section 1.B.1. Special hosts quibus glutinum ablatum est are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist. 1. B 2. Low-gluten hosts are valid matter, provided that they contain the amount of gluten sufficient to obtain the confection of bread, that these in no addition of foreign materials and that the procedure for making such hosts is not such as to alter the nature of the substance of the bread. Section 3. D. states: “Given the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the priest, candidates for the priesthood who are affected by coeliac disease or suffer from alcoholism or similar conditions may not be admitted to holy orders”.

Valid matter?
Monsanto’s genetically engineered wheat has an added protein which makes it tolerant to Roundup, the company’s herbicide. This raises questions whether GE wheat can be valid matter for the Eucharist.

If, notwithstanding a pressing health need, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith refused to sanction gluten-free hosts as valid matter for the Eucharist because a protein has been extracted from the wheat, how can it sanction genetically engineered wheat which has an added protein designed to make it resistant to Roundup? Monsanto claims that GE wheat will add to the farmers’ yield. Some would dispute this claim. What is absolutely certain is that GE wheat will increase Monsanto’s profits substantially. But if the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith banned gluten-free wheat despite its health benefits, how it can it allow genetically engineered wheat, with the added protein, be used for the celebration of the Eucharist?

Monsanto’s genetically engineered wheat has an added protein which makes it tolerant to Roundup, the company’s herbicide. This raises questions whether it is lawful to use GE wheat as matter for the Eucharist. If, despite a pressing health need, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith refused to sanction gluten-free hosts because a protein has been extracted from the wheat how can it sanction genetically engineered wheat which has an added protein to makes the wheat resistant to Roundup? Monsanto claims that GE wheat will add to the farmers’ yield. I will argue below that this is debatable. What is absolutely certain is that GE wheat will increase Monsanto’s profits substantially. But if the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith banned gluten-free wheat despite its health benefits how it can allow genetically engineered wheat with the added protein to be used for the celebration of the Eucharist?

Spiritual leaders opposed to GE crops
As a missionary I know that many spiritual leaders working close to their people in Third World countries are opposed to GE food. Fourteen bishops in Brazil have appealed to the government not to sanction GE crops. They state that “GMOs threaten the food sovereignty of our country, by means of the loss of control of the seeds and living organism by the patenting of these, thereby converted into the exclusive and legal property of transnational groups with only commercial interests. The greatest risk, nevertheless, as we understand it, is the total dependency resulting from the destruction and finally disappearance of the small and even medium scale production and commercialization of seeds, which are subsumed under the domain of a small group of giant and powerful transnational corporation.”

I worked with the T’boli people in Mindanao for over ten years during in the 1980s which I came to know and respect the leader of the diocese of Marbel, Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of Marbel. At that time he was promoting human rights and social justice, especially for tribal people. In recent years he has led a vigorous campaign against the planting of Bt. corn in his diocese because he sees what the impact will be on the people and the land. If the Vatican supports GE foods he and many others around the world will feel that the Catholic Church has abandoned them favour of giant biotech corporations who are poised to make billions of dollars on GE seeds.