SUSTAINABILITY | THEODORA FILIS | JUNE 21, 2011 5:45 AM

Since the turn of the century, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the scientific academy of the Vatican, whose 80 members are appointed by the Pope, has kept the world guessing – will the Catholic Church fully support genetically modified organisms?

Then, on November 30 last year, 40 international scientists, including seven Pontifical 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 long-time supporters of GMOs. According to the magazine U.S. Catholic, not only did the participants include GMO developers (both, those who work for governments and for companies that sell genetically modified seeds), but at least four of the speakers at the meeting 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 and 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.

If “official position” merely means that Pope Benedict has not endorsed GMOs during a Sunday mass, then maybe his and Bishop Sorondo’s arguments have some merit. However, it is difficult for the Holy See, and those that influence the pope, to claim neutrality without appearing disingenuous given the recent WikiLeaks transmissions.

Washington’s greatest ally at the Vatican has been 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 UN. 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,” reported 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 – again they are not ‘official’ Vatican positions.

It is fair to say that the Vatican is actually quite modern in some regards, being among rather few Christian ruling bodies that don’t perceive themselves as being directly threatened by real science. The Vatican does, after all, accept the evidence of evolution, astronomy, archaeology and biology – and there are many churches that can’t say the same.

But it is because of this relative modernity that the policies of the Vatican on GMOs need to be taken seriously. Should the church’s tendency to support GMOs become the ‘official’ position, this will have ripple effects that are likely to reach everyone.

Theodora Filis is an environmental journalist, consultant and college instructor. She is a regular contributor to UK Progressive.co.uk, Examiner.com, and a Moderator for sub-group CLIMATE on LinkedIn. Theodora’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide, including The San Francisco Chronicle, KOBE News, World Farming, United Nations Association, UK and World Tech News. You can view her blog at http://www.dfilis.blogspot.com