Hijacking the Vatican

April 2010

In its continual quest for market acceptance of its GM products, the biotech industry seems to have contrived to claim the Vatican as its ally.

Support from this particular quarter would certainly be useful: the Pope's word is a global power in shaping public attitudes, and the influence of Catholic missionary orders in the same developing countries where the biotech industry is planning to reap profits is considerable.

The problem is how do you persuade a supreme leader of spirituality to think like a commercial salesman for a very unnatural crop?

The answer is you can't.

However, if you're as adept at manipulating the truth as the biotech industry seems to be, it's quite possible to turn 'NO GM' into an apparent blessing on all GM crops.

The first attempt to use the influence of the Church was very direct. Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, asked the Vatican to silence the Jesuits who were inciting Zambia to refuse GM food-aid which America was trying to offload on the country. The reply Powell got made it very clear at that there was not a lot of sympathy in Rome for the GM cause.

The biotech industry then seems to have searched out less direct ways to try to get its own way.

The previous Archbishop of St. Louis (home of Monsanto) was persuaded to recommend one Peter Raven to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The latter is the Vatican's official scientific body, which serves to debate scientific subjects so as to provide up-to-date knowledge on current scientific progress. The Academy has no role whatsoever in setting Church teaching.

Peter Raven is the director of the Botanical Garden of Saint Louis which has received significant funds from Monsanto. Raven describes himself as having a Catholic background, but is on his fourth marriage having divorced his third wife who was a public relations director for Monsanto.

When the Archbishop passed away, his successor was pressurised by Raven to change his anti-GM views, and lodged an objection to Raven's appointment to the Pontifical Academy. It seems, however, that Raven is still firmly in position there.

The Academy has another GM advocate in the form of Ingo Potrykus, originator of vitamin-A-enhanced 'golden rice'. His GM rice has never been generally accepted as a solution to the nutritional problems of the poor (see GOLDEN RICE: GOLDEN DISTRACTION – 2009). When he finally resorted to a multimillion-dollar information campaign to convert the public, Potrykus even asked the Vatican for money. His request was declined, but he was invited to joint the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

As one journalist for the Guardian has commented, the chancellor the the Pontifical Academy
“appears to have no idea how far his organisation has been hijacked by the genetic modification companies and their chums” (Vidal).
Perhaps predictably, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences seems to have adopted a new role, and has been running GM-promotional events.

The first of these was a one-day conference in 2004 in the US Pontifical Gregorian University. It was entitled “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology”.

This event was advertised as an examination of “how biotechnology can contribute to protecting human life and promoting human dignity”. However, despite couching its purpose in Vatican-friendly terms, it attracted outspoken criticism from a number of Catholic rural support bodies which attended it. The outcome was that, despite Raven's best attempts to convince the gathering that raising questions about technologies such as 'terminator' was “emotional and irrational”, the 'moral imperative' of biotechnology was turned firmly on its head.

A second major event took place five years later in Rome, and was in the form of a study week entitled “Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development”. It was organised by Ingo Potrykus.

Learning from their previous mistake, this event was a gathering of pro-GM speakers only, oddly described as “an objective” group of experts. More than half of the panel were from the USA, and a large proportion were prominent in the fields of economics and legal regulation rather than science. One professor had worked for both the World Trade Association and the World Bank, one participant was a Monsanto employee, and another an adviser to Monsanto's CEO, while several other worked for companies heavily backed by the Company. The Church members who had previously voiced their concerns were absent.

Potrykus himself admitted that the week was not standard science. In fact, the event doesn't seem to have been anything to do with science at all, because he stated bluntly that “changing societal attitudes, including the regulatory process involved is extremely important if we are to save biotechnology”. One well-known GM promoter, Bruce Chassy, who was presumably also involved in the organisation of the event, said 
“We didn't invite a bunch of naysayers to the table ... This is not a 'balanced' meeting, in the sense that you bring every point of view to the table and seek some kind of idiotic consensus”.
The study-week obviously involved very little study, no scientific discussion and seems to have been contradictory to the remit of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as a debating body.

However, whereas the conference in 2004 couldn't be twisted into a statement of support for GM, the 2009 event, with its contrived absence of debate and forgone conclusions, was successfully fed to the media as Vatican support for GM. Even the prestigious journal, Nature Biotechnology, carried an article headline “Vatican cheers GM” and a supporting, misleading, quote from Potrykus saying that he “would hope the moral high ground of the Vatican is relevant at least in Catholic countries”.

Although the Catholic press was very clear that “The charter of every biotech company demands that its first task is to make a profit”, and commented that “the aim of the academy's week-long event seemed less to conduct an objective appraisal of GMOs than to mobilize public support”, there were enough misleading statements made in less knowledgeable circles of the media to turn the non-debate into a GM lever.

Just how much of a lever this was can be judged from a report prepared by the US Department of Agriculture attaché in Rome in January 2010. This report duly advised that because the Vatican is a “vocal advocate” of GM crops as a way of easing hunger in Africa, Italy was a “good place to start” a campaign to “educate” Europeans about GM crops.

By this time, you may be asking yourself 'What is the official Vatican position on GM?'

Well, here are some examples:

  • In 2000, the Pope John Paul II stressed that biotechnology “cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of immediate economic interests ...(but) must be submitted beforehand to rigorous scientific and ethical examination, to prevent them from becoming disastrous for human health and the future of the earth”.
  • In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI released a 62-page 'instrumentum laboris'. This clearly condemns the multinational corporations which continue to “systematically invade the (African) continent in search of natural resources ... (and) ... continue to pose a threat to peace, justice and reconciliation.” On globalization, he mentions the risk of a world economy which disregards what is truly a part of the human person “such as the spiritual, moral and cultural values and gifts of local African traditions and religious faith”. He describes how “A process organized to destroy the African identity seems to be taking place under the pretext of modernity”. A strong warning is given against thinking genetically modified crops would solve Africa's food crises and that “Using GM crops risks “ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding and making farmers dependent on the production companies (selling genetically modified seeds)”. The document said no one should overlook the real agricultural problems on the continent, which include a lack of cultivatable land, water, energy, credit, local markets and infrastructure for transporting products.
  • In 2010 Pope Benedict reiterated his support of “suitable strategies for rural development centred on small farmers and their families”.
  • In response to the study week, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, explained “There has been talk of an explicit 'yes' to the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, confusing once again personal commentaries of ecclesiastics with 'official' statements attributed to the Holy See or the Church'. It went on to quote Pope Benedict XVI's 'Caritas in Veritate' that the “Church does not have technical solutions to offer” but does “have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.” The Holy Father is also quoted as asserting that world hunger is “not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional”.
  • In the same edition, the editor of L'Osservatore Roman observed that “it is no accident that precisely in 2009 , a year in which in the developing countries GMOs have grown by 13%, and opposed to a world average of 7%, covering almost half of the cultivated surface of the planet with transgenic plants, the number of hungry in the world for the first time exceeds one billion”.
  • The new head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace told the Catholic News Service in March 2010 that he would urge an attitude of caution and further study of the possible negative effects of genetically engineered organisms. He said the biotech companies have a right to want to make a profit from their work, but that the issue becomes problematic when a company that controls the use of GM seeds is motivated more by profit than by “the declared desire to want to help feed humanity”.
Do these words add up to the Vatican being a “vocal advocate” of GM crops in Africa?

OUR COMMENT

You would expect an American attaché in Rome to have done her homework and know how the Vatican functions and be clear on its position on GM crops.

In support of her advice, the attaché quoted 65% of Italians as supporting biotechnology. In a country where 16 out of 20 Regional Governments (together with 41 provinces and 2,446 municipalities) have declared themselves GM-free zones this level of support seems unlikely.

Her report also suggested that it was “fringe groups” not representative of the general public who were generating a misperception of opinion on GM. These anti-GM “fringe groups” include the Italian Government, Italy's main farming union, and the country's biggest food retailer.

Did the attaché's fanciful report really emerge from ignorance? Or, had she done her homework perfectly well but decided (or been instructed) to adjust her findings so that they could be fed into the media to bolster the required misinformation on Vatican 'support'?

It tells a sorry tale when a major scientific journal carries an article for which the most basic background research hasn't been done: let's hope the science it publishes is of a better quality.

If you see any further misuse of the Vatican's esteemed influence suggesting GM is OK and will feed the starving, set the record straight. Editors should know when their journalists aren't doing their homework and their articles have untruths in them.

SOURCES

David Andrew, The Pontifical Academy of Sciences continues Foolhardy Biotechnology Advocacy, www.columban.com, 29.01.09
Fr. Seán McDonagh, Bishop Sanchez's Position on GMO Untenable, www.imu.ie, 25.03.09
Anna Meldolesi, Vatican cheers GM, Nature Biotechnology 27, 2009
Carol Glatz, Synod working document seeks ways to promote justice, peace in Africa, Catholic News Service 19.03.09
Vatican: No Official OK for Genetically Modified Potato, www.catholic.net
John Vidal, GM hijacks Vatican in unholy alliance, Guardian Environment Blog 19.05.09
Vatican Academy to help save GM Foods, Columbian Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Australia, 4.02.09
Vatican study endorses GMOs for food security, National Catholic Reporter, May 2009
Peter Raven profile, www.lobbywatch.org, 09.04.09
Martin Enserink, Tough lessons from golden rice, Science 320 25.04.08
Italy is 'weak point' of EU's anti-GM defenses, www.agrimoney.com, 18.01.10
Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the Celebration of the World Day of Peach, 1.01.10, www.vatican.va
Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology, Conference Advertisement, The Pontifical Gregorian University, 24.09.04
Carol Glatz, Vatican official cautions against genetically modified organisms, Catholic News Service, www.archindy.org, 10.03.10

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