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Rome Notes: Battle Over Biotechnology; Sports and Spirituality

10/1/2004 - 10:00 PM PST

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Conference Looks at Genetically Modified Organisms

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, OCT. 1, 2004 (Zenit) - Participants and press people alike found themselves highly stirred during a biotechnology conference held at the Gregorian University last week.

That's exactly what the organizers of the event were hoping for.

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had joined forces to present the meeting entitled "Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology?"

They aimed to investigate the complex moral debate surrounding the use of genetically modified foods or organisms, GMOs, as an answer to feeding the 1.5 billion people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

In his presentation, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences said that their hope was to delve deeper into the issue, "to collaborate what Pope Paul VI called the drama of hunger in the world."

U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson agreed. "Feeding the hungry is a question of life and death," he said. "It is a moral challenge of great magnitude that demands we explore all options to help the poor and assist them in their own environments to become self-sustaining in their food production."

Despite the conference's notable speakers, who represented the scientific, ecclesial and rural realms, the event drew accusations of being too one-sided by tending to favor the use of GMOs to be grown by the poor and starving.

Conference participants Jesuit Father Roland Lessops and Franciscan Sister Janet Fearns, who each spent many years working in rural Africa, told me of their frustration at the lack of "balanced representation."

In one of his documents on this issue, Father Lessops warned of the "propaganda and distortion" surrounding "the argument of the proponents of GMOs."

Ambassador Nicholson too recognized these misgivings. "Unfortunately, efforts to explore biotechnology's potential have been hindered by misinformation and misunderstandings fomented by anti-biotech activists," he said. "Scientific evidence has been overwhelming that biotech can play a critical role in the developing world."

To date, the Vatican has taken no specific stance on the issue, even though the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has published a study document and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace sponsored an intense conference of this kind last November. Bishop Sánchez Sorondo pointed out that "the conclusions of the academy do not represent the official teachings of the Church, so they are free to be debated."

Throughout the conference, the debate focused on ethical, environmental and economical concerns.

Father Lessops aired concerns that there is a division within the Church on the topic of biotechnology. He noted that "there are bishops' conferences and Catholic institutions in many parts of the world -- in the Philippines, South Africa, even parts of the U.S., who oppose GMOs."

One of the speakers representing the Church in an official capacity was Legionary Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the bioethics school at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University. He told me that he believes that the division comes from "social ideology and different data input."

Foes of biotechnology question whether it is ethically right for us to tamper with nature. Father Miranda supported the scientists in the hall, such as AgBio founder C.S. Prakash, when he noted that "humankind has been selecting and manipulating plant and animal food stocks for millenniums."

Referring to the Book of Genesis, Father Miranda observed how humankind was created in the "image and likeness of God" and has been given dominion over all living things. "In this sense," the priest said, "God has made man the 'gardener of creation' who should work with responsibility to cultivate and take care of it."

He notes, however, that the Bible points out that humanity does not have the right to "abuse or do damage to nature." Yet this is precisely what others believe GMOs do.

Father Rodrigo Peret, for instance, believes that many of the solutions to problems are already available in nature itself. Father Peret, who attended the conference, heads the Franciscan Justice and Peace office. He says that we do not need new biotechnology as it threatens health and biodiversity. "Technical solutions like genetic engineering overshadow real social and environmental problems that cause hunger," he insisted.

Botanist Peter Raven, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and speaker at the conference, gave us examples of what has been achieved with various organisms, including the so-called golden rice. This is a grain enriched with vitamin A, the lack of which causes many diseases in Africa. "We are ...

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