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Holy Crop! Vatican Blesses GMOs

By Theodora Filis

Since the turn of the century, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the scientific academy of the Vatican, whose 80 members the Pope appoints, has kept the world guessing – will the Catholic Church fully support GMOs?

Then, on November 30, 2010, forty international scientists, including seven academy scientists, released a statement demanding a relaxation of what they call “excessive, unscientific regulations” for approving GM crops, saying that these measures prevent development of crops for the “public good.” The academy scientists also claimed that scientists have both the right and a moral duty to be “stewards of God” by genetically modifying crops to help the world’s poor.

I've heard that before -- from Ingo Potrykus. Potrykus is a member of the Pontifical Academy, based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he developed “golden rice,” and was instrumental in bringing about the 2010 meeting.

Interestingly, but not surprising, most of the 40 participants at the meeting, were longtime supporters of GMOs. According to U.S. Catholic, not only did the meeting participants include GMO developers (both, those who work for governments and for companies that sell genetically modified seeds), but also, at least four of the speakers have ties to Monsanto.

The US, home to the multinational biotechnology giant Monsanto, has lobbied the Vatican for years to persuade it to speak positively about GMOs, calling biotechnology a "moral imperative" to feed the world's hungry.

Both the Pope as well as the Chancellor of the Academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, one of the seven Vatican advisers at the meeting, tried to distance themselves from the endorsement, saying, “these statements cannot be considered the 'official' position of either the Holy See or the Academy”.

Despite attempts by the Vatican to remain publicly neutral, WikiLeaks recently uncovered a transmission from Christopher Sandrolini, a US diplomat to the Holy See, that demonstrates the Vatican's clandestine approval of GM crops.

Therefore, does 'official' imply the Pope did not endorse GMOs during a Sunday mass? If so, then maybe their arguments have some merit. However, it is difficult for the Holy See, and those that influence him, to claim neutrality without appearing disingenuous given the recent WikiLeaks transmissions.

Washington's greatest ally at the Vatican was Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, who spoke of the benefits and safety of GMOs, and who hosted a biotech conference at the Vatican in 2003, while living in New York as the Vatican's ambassador to the U.N. However, Wikileaks cables indicate Martino may have been playing the role of a good diplomat.

"A Martino deputy told us recently that the cardinal had cooperated with (the embassy) on biotech over the past two years in part to compensate for his vocal disapproval of the Iraq war and its aftermath — to keep relations with the US (government) smooth," according to one cable.

"According to our source, Martino no longer feels the need to take this approach," the cable said.

The Vatican has said the WikiLeaks cables reflect only the views of the people who wrote them and are not 'official' Vatican positions.

We might consider the Vatican is actually quite modern in some regard, being among the few, if not the only, Christian sect that doesn't perceive itself as being directly threatened by real science. The Vatican, after all, accepts the evidence of evolution, astronomy, archeology, and biology.

Regardless of how thoroughly modern the Vatican is, its policies on GMOs will have definite ripple effects that reach everyone.

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