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Vatican Mulls View-Change on GMO

United Press International
By Eric J. Lyman
August 8, 2003

The Vatican appears to be reversing its opposition to the use of genetically modified foods, unexpectedly thrusting the Holy See into the debate on the subject raging between the United States and the European Union.

A full Vatican statement on the subject is not expected to be released until September -- a timetable that would coincide with the annual meeting of EU farm ministers. Information leaked this week, however, says when the statements are released they will highlight a clear shift in Vatican policy. Already church officials have made statements supporting the use of GM foods to feed the starving.

Although the church had previously stayed clear of much of the debate over GM foods, the few statements on the subject indicated a well- marked-out opposition to the technology.

In 2000, for example, Pope John Paul II, speaking at a special Vatican mass dedicated to agriculture, called on farmers to "resist the temptation of high productivity and profit that work to the detriment of the respect of nature," adding that "when (farmers) forget this basic principle and become tyrants of the earth rather than its custodians ... sooner or later the earth rebels."

Less than a year later, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, the Vatican's permanent observer to the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, formally asked the institution to monitor the spread of GM crops in Europe and to support tighter controls on the technology. Several times in recent years, bishops have made statements saying genetically modifying food was the same as tampering with God's work. The latest statements on the subject, however, represent a dramatic change from those stances.

In a statement to United Press International, Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the pontifical council for Justice and Peace, said the pope is "greatly interested in new technologies for food development as part of a policy of sustainable agriculture ... (and that he) ardently desires to do something for the billions of people who go to bed hungry every night." Martino also said there is biblical support for the new view, offering that "the Book of Genesis clearly establishes the domination of man over nature ... God has entrusted mankind to preserve nature but also to use it."

A related statement - obtained by United Press International - from Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Urban University, brushed away opposition to GM foods, saying it is "easy to say no to GM food if your stomach is full." Although the new view has yet to be released as an official church document, expert observers say there is not much room for misinterpretation with the recent statements. "Given the reports that very senior church officials are making these statements, there is little doubt that the statements reflect a new view from the church," the Rev. Alistair Sear, a church historian, told UPI.

The statements come as the debate between Washington and Brussels on the subject is heating up. The EU generally opposes the use of GM crops on the grounds they could pose unexpected health risks; the United States -- the world's largest producer of GM products -- contends they are the best way to feed starving populations.

The latest salvo in the debate came Thursday, when the United States officially asked the World Trade Organization to set up a panel to determine if Europe's opposition to GM foods is legal. An EU spokesman reiterated the trading bloc would not budge on the issue.

Almost nobody expected the Vatican to weigh in on the issue, and environmental groups did not welcome the unexpected entry into the debate. "We don't believe the Vatican has considered all of the health and environmental aspects represented by GM crops," a spokesman for the Italian environmental lobby group Legambiente told UPI. "We believe the Vatican is unaware that it is being manipulated by large biotechnology firms and the government of the United States."

Although views from the Vatican usually do not have an impact on policy in developed countries, it's opinions are thought to be taken into serious consideration when laws are developed in Catholic parts of the developing world, such as South and Central America, and parts of Africa and southeast Asia.