November 30, 2010
By Andy Coghlan
Scientists have both the right and a moral duty to be "stewards of God" by genetically modifying crops to help the world's poor, scientific advisers to the Vatican said this week.
In a statement condemning opposition to GM crops in rich countries as unjustified, a group of scientists including leading members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is demanding a relaxation of "excessive, unscientific regulations" for approving GM crops, saying that these prevent development of crops for the "public good".
The statement was agreed unanimously by 40 international scientists after a week-long closed meeting held in May 2009 at the Vatican, convened by 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", a variety engineered with extra vitamin A to prevent childhood blindness.
Although the academy has yet to officially endorse the statement, it was approved by the seven members at the meeting, including academy chancellor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo. "The Catholic Church has 1 billion members," says academy member Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, which once received funds from Monsanto. He adds that although this global community will never have a unified official line on GM crops, "our statement is about as close as you can get to one".
The academy expressed provisional support for GM crops in 2000, but the scientists say that it can now back the technology with more confidence. The statement calls for a revision of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, agreed in 2000 to regulate the movement of GM organisms between countries.
It says the environmental risks envisaged when the protocol was drafted have not materialised, adding that regulatory hurdles make it too expensive for anyone other than large multinational firms to develop crops benefiting the poor, such as drought-resistant cassava and yams.
Also challenged is the objection made by critics of GM that, by messing with nature, genetic engineers are "playing God" (see "No uncertain terms"). The statement denounces as outdated many allegations made by GM critics. "There has not been a single documented case of harm to consumers or the environment," says Potrykus.
He and the co-authors therefore argue for relaxation of what they say are draconian regulations preventing development of crops for the poor. Potrykus says his attempts to bring golden rice to poor consumers demonstrate the scale of the problem. "It took 10 years longer and $20 million more than a normal variety to commercialise it," he says. "The time and investment required is prohibitive for any public sector institution, so the future use of this technology for the poor totally depends on reform of regulation," he says.
Anti-GM group Friends of the Earth maintains that GM crops are not the solution. "We need food and farming policies that put the needs of people before the profits of a handful of GMO companies," says campaigner Mute Schimpf.