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Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology

By Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Presentation made at the conference "Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology" on September 24, 2004 organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in cooperation with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy

My introductory word is an invitation to read the document that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences produced in 2001 and in which this whole complex problem is studied with a scientific approach as well as with the necessary considerations for justice.

The following final recommendation stands as an example of this: "In order to help governments, state-funded researchers, and private companies to meet the above conditions, and in order to facilitate the development of common standards and approaches to this problem in both developing and industrialised countries, the scientific community, represented by its established worldwide umbrella organisations, should offer its expertise. A suitably composed international scientific advisory committee could be entrusted with this all-important task."

Regarding the issue that has brought us here today, it is our hope that we can go deep into it in order to collaborate to solve what Paul VI called "the drama of hunger in the world". As you probably know, according to a recent document by the London School of Economics, "Child Poverty in the Developing World", 674 million children in the world live in conditions of absolute poverty. On the other hand, the latest estimations of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show that 840 million people in the world suffer from chronic malnutrition. Such a drama - which the Church has been the first to denounce through its Social Teaching- goes against the basic human condition.

In my view, two kinds of questions arise when we attempt to solve this drama through GE foods: those concerning the hard sciences and those relating to the political sciences (i.e., a problem of international and national justice).

In the first place, it is necessary to know whether this type of food has harmful effects on the health of human beings and on the environment. In this sense, there is some recent important news: the US National Academy of Sciences and the French Academy of Sciences have both approved this kind of food. The US National Academy of Sciences produced a document named "Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects" (27 July 2004). Genetic engineering is not an inherently hazardous process, the report says, but the resulting food, along with foods created from other methods of genetic modification, should be examined to determine if the inserted genes produce toxins or allergens. Unexpected changes are more apt to occur if genetic material is transferred between distantly related species. Genetic engineering is more likely to cause unintended changes than some techniques, such as simple selection, but less likely to do so than other currently used methods, such as those that use radiation or chemicals. Because all methods can cause these changes, the committee concluded that attempts to assess food safety based solely on the method of breeding are "scientifically unjustified."

Personally, I find it hard to believe that modern sciences and technologies cannot help to alleviate starvation.

About the question of justice or the distribution of the goods, naturally, the interests behind GE foods are huge, especially from Northern agribusiness companies, but a healthy political orientation in order to achieve the common good and justice could mean a decisive change in favour of the poor people and children.

As you are probably aware, with the participation of Cardinal Sodano, President Lula da Silva led a summit on hunger together with other world leaders in New York earlier this week. As he pointed out, "how many more times will it be necessary to repeat that the most destructive weapon of mass destruction in the world is poverty?"

In line with many of these opinions, namely that held by Kofi Annan, I think that we need to explore all possibilities, both old and new, to solve this "drama". With traditional methods only, we are not likely to reach the objectives set forth by the "Zero Hunger Programme" by 2015, as the Millennium Goals Declaration has promised the poor. If things remain as they are, "the fight against poverty is one hundred years away from fulfilling its goals and promises" as predicted by Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, who added: "the richest countries cannot continue to establish goals without fulfilling them systematically and hoping that the poorest countries calmly continue to believe in us."

Naturally, many other things should be changed in order to narrow the increasing rich-poor gap, such as introducing a general tax that all countries would pay according to their wealth and that would then be distributed among the poor. In this sense, Lula has proposed a number of ideas to help raise money for the poor, which include eliminating agricultural subsidies, taxing the trade of certain weapons, imposing a small tax in current tax havens, earmarking a percentage of corporate turnover, creating special bonds and raising outlays from the International Monetary Fund. Similarly, Jean-Pierre Landau has urged the developed countries to reduce the cost of agricultural exports to the developing countries.

To conclude I would like to quote Cardinal Sodano, who said that this emergency must be "faced with a series of complex factors, such as, for example, the need to invest in the human capital of the local populations (I am thinking of education and health issues), to encourage the transfer of the appropriate technologies, and to guarantee fairness in international trade. This, however, must not discourage the definition of a series of programmes to eradicate hunger and thirst in the world".

Coming back to the specific issue of GE foods, I would like to refer to what is happening now in Argentina to exemplify this question of justice. Monsanto -the provider of technology-based agricultural products- wants to collect royalties for the use of their transgenic soybean seeds. The government and the farmers strongly oppose this. Naturally, money is necessary in order to continue research on the development of these seeds, but let me add the recommendation 12 of the Study Document of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: "Intellectual property rights should not inhibit a wide access to beneficial applications of scientific knowledge. In the development of this modern genetic technology for agriculture, efforts should be made to facilitate cooperation between the public and private sectors and to secure the promotion of solidarity between the industrialised and developing worlds."

And here is where justice -both national and international- comes into play. For it belongs to justice to render to each one his own and to judge what the rights of each party are. For this reason, it is very important that all people and institutions voice their views and organise meetings to discuss this complex problem.

A final consideration could be made. The Vatican is a State that tries to collaborate with the Holy Father in Peter's mission of evangelization. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences carries out such collaboration through the careful study and discussion of scientific questions. The conclusions of the Academy do not represent the official Teachings of the Church, so they are free to be debated on.

If the Pontifical Academy of Sciences does not take care of these problems that are primary to people, what other problems should it address? I can promise you that I will proceed with extreme prudence given the many important reasons that you remark. Please, let us pray so that our meeting can contribute to a new order with more justice.