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Emboldened by faith, serving with joy.

genetically modified organisms

A Continuing Study For the Corporate Stance

We support a moratorium on the planting of crops derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO),  pending environmental and human safety studies. Until such time as this technology is proven safe, all foods containing GMO ingredients should be clearly LABELED.

Sustainable agriculture, food security and food safety are more urgent goals than ever as we enter the new millennium. In the developing countries the agricultural sector has multiple roles: to help ensure food security, anchor rural development, provide resources for the livelihood and adequate incomes of a majority of people and to do this without destroying the ecological base. There are thus two inextricably linked components, social and environmental, to agricultural sustainability.
                                                        By Chee Yoke Ling, Third World Network, Malaysia

These issues are raised in Voices from the South* questioning whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) introduced into the Southern Hemisphere by multinational corporations would sustain those multiple roles.

* (A joint project of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy 
and Pesticide Action Network North America)

Much evidence indicates that sustainability with GMOs is not feasible. A very foundational issue is that food production in Third World countries needs to be diverse for local consumption. GMOs are effective for agribusiness and one-crop industries with large market potential. For the small farmer and local communities, this is unsound and would not allow for a variety of plants needed to sustain the food supply for a local village. The agricultural system in underdeveloped regions of the world should be geared primarily to meeting domestic needs for food and other products such as roofing and fencing materials, animal fodder, etc. The home garden is an important feature in traditional African farming systems. These gardens contain a great deal of plant diversity, since they serve as a source of vegetables, medicines, local brew for ceremonies and even clothing. Maintaining this diversity is critical to African livelihood and food security.

Because of these factors, farmers require seed for many different types of crops. In addition, farmers want seeds of numerous different cultivars of each crop, to allow for varied physical environments in which they plant the crop (valley, bottom and hillside, different soil types), whether the crop is inter-planted, stagger planted or pure stand, and when the seed is planted (main season or off-season). Even on a small piece of land, it is common to find different crop varieties. This is the farmers’ strategy against uncertainties—a way to spread out their risk.

However, one of the features of the GMOs is the “terminator” seed, i.e. a sterile seed. This seed forces farmers to buy new seed yearly. Some of the practical implications of this situation include such problems as having to pay for seeds that would otherwise be readily available and to buy in quantities too great for the size of the farms. The net result of use of these seeds would be the dependency of the agricultural community on the multinational pesticide/seed corporations. This in turn could further cause the deepening of hunger, as community based farming would decrease in the face of increased costs.

Fr Roland Lesseps SJ, Instructor at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre and Fr Peter Henriot SJ, Director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, both in Lusaka, Zambia have presented papers on the relationship of the GMO development and Catholic Social Teachings (CST) out of their experience and study in south-central Africa.

Pope John Paul II’s 1990 message for World Peace Day states: that “certain elements of today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. First among these is the indiscriminate application of advances in science and technology …The application of these discoveries in the fields of industry and agriculture has produced harmful long-term effects. This has led to the painful realization that we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”

In the next section of his message, Pope John Paul II makes this powerful statement: “We can only look with deep concern at the enormous possibilities of biological research. We are not yet in a position to assess the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say nothing of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life itself. It is evident that in any area as delicate as this, indifference to fundamental ethical norms, or their rejection, would lead humankind to the very threshold of self-destruction.”

What are some “fundamental ethical norms” that can guide our evaluation of genetic engineering? One such norm is the precautionary principle that Our Holy Father stated (bolded above). We should, at the very least, follow this precautionary principle and not adopt a technology that is still inadequately tested. We already have many examples of serious problems brought about by our not being able to see the undesirable consequences caused by our use of what seemed to be a wonderful benefit. Sad examples include: the insecticide DDT [which led] to death of bird embryos by thinning the egg shells, the refrigerant gas chlorofluorocarbon was found to be destroying the ozone layer, and the tranquilizer thalidomide caused severe abnormalities in over 7,000 children born of women who took the drug during pregnancy.

Our theological perspective stressed the respect due to all of God’s creation, a respect that recognizes the sacredness and inherent value of the cosmic order. As a consequence, genetic modification can never be viewed simply as a technological or economic tool in the hands of humans. This enables us to see that the so-called “precautionary principle” invoked, for example, by Zambia (which forbad the importation of GMO seeds), is more than a temporary scientific safeguard. It is a fundamental call to humility before the awesome goodness of God’s creation.

Our CST perspective demonstrated the value-added dimension given to GMO discussions by the principles of the common good, option for the poor, subsidiary and solidarity. These principles provide fundamental challenges to the geo-political and neo-liberal forces that are promoting GMOs in agriculture today. Certainly they should guide any church responses to GMO policies.

We feel that these two perspectives both broaden our vision and deepen our compassion when we look at the way the question of GMOs is frequently – and mistakenly – put: an either-or choice of feeding a hungry world. There are other and more suitable ways to feed a hungry world than adopting genetic engineering of crops. These are the ways that are revealed when we look seriously … at the issues of “justice and peace, the development of peoples and violations of human rights.”

This is all the more obvious when we remember that food is not merely another economic commodity governed in its production and distribution by the laws of the market. Since it is essential to life, it is both a sacred entity and a global common good. The conclusions of our presentation here are therefore clear:

  • Theological and ethical concerns must be primary in any discussion promoted by church groups.
  • Genetic modification does not meet the tests of the social teaching of the church for genuine integral development that respects human rights and the order of creation.
  • The church has the responsibility to educate its members to the religious values essential in evaluating use of GMOs in agriculture.
  • Political pressures should be brought by Justice and Peace groups across the world to promote non- GMO approaches to meeting problems of hunger.

Food First – The Institute For Food and Development Policy Special Report: Voices from the South The Third World Debunks Corporate Myths on Genetically Engineered Crops Food First, together with the Pesticide Action Network, has brought together a range of views from critics of GE food. http://www.foodfirst.org/sacramento/voices/voicesfull.pdf

Excerpts from “Genetically Modified Organisms and Catholic Social Thought (CST)”. Full text available:http://www.loyno.edu/twomey/blueprint/vol_lvii/No-05_Jan_2004.html


  1. ICCR Shareholder Resolution: Report on Impacts of Genetically Modified Foods 2004 – Archer-Daniels- Midland Company http://www.iccr.org/shareholder/proxy_book04/FOOD%20AND%20WATER/GMO_ADM.HTM
  2. Rosemary Radford Ruether Ecojustice at the Center of the Church’s Mission (20 November 1999)http://www.sedos.org/english/radford.htm
  3. Fatal Harvest The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture Andy Kimbrell, ed. 2002; The Foundation for Deep Ecology and Island Press

For its latest publication, Fatal Harvest, the Foundation for Deep Ecology has assembled the “A” Team of today’s leading ecological thinkers to focus on the case for a safer, more nutritious, more sustainable, and therefore more secure, food system.

Under the editorship of public interest attorney and author Andy Kimbrell, over thirty of the best known authorities on sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, public policy, and social justice compare and contrast the linear industrial model of agriculture with the cyclical biological one. Writers include Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Vandana Shiva, Alice Waters, Peter Warshall, and Community Food Security Coalition…

Mary Brigid Clingman, OP