Pope Blesses Genetically Modified Crops

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The Pope gets one right. "The Vatican has stunned opponents of genetically modified foods by declaring they hold the answer to world starvation and malnutrition," according the a report carried by Worldwide Religious News. A soon to be released Vatican study on biotechnology will further "argue that the future of humanity is at stake and that there is no room for the ideological arguments advanced by environmentalists."

[Link thanks to David Boaz.]

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  1. This is the same Pope who also opposes gay marraige.

  2. This is the same pope that wears a funny hat. So what?

    How does genetically modified crops even remotely relate to gay marriage when the arguement has to do with “the answer to world starvation and malnutrition.”

  3. That’s why I wrote that he got this “one” right. He’s not infallible.

  4. Not to play devil’s advocate here, I’m no fan of abortion myself, but wouldn’t abortion also serve to alleviate the problem of world hunger (albeit in a less than ideal way)? Perhaps the Pope would argue that “there is no room for the ideological arguments advanced by Catholic pro-lifers.”

  5. I think most of us here will likely agree the Pope’s hardly infallible. Still, as long as someone out there sees him as an authority, it only makes sense to be interested in what he has to say, if only on a political level.

  6. Brad S: So would war and murder. Clearly these fly in the face of Catholic teachings, and as the Catholic Church holds it, life begins at conception. Ergo, if they’re not for murder and war as population controls, clearly they’re not going to be for something they view as its moral equivalent.
    Mind you, I’m not endorsing their point of view explicitly, but it has an internal consistency. A better argument would rest in birth control, which does not involve messy questions of a seperate human life, which the Catholic Church also largely opposes but could greatly ease overpopulation.

  7. Wouldn’t the use of condoms, and *gasp*, other methods of family planning also help?

    BTW, I read a story recently which de-bunked the “rythm method” as myth. Apparently many women ovulate (if that is the right term for sending out an egg) more than once during a “period,” often up to three or four times, so trying to predict fertility based on a model which calls for a single ovulation during a cycle is apparently rather ineffective.

    Ron Bailey,

    Well, the EU is creating a labelling program; it is hoped that the US won’t challenge it before the WTO. Already the US is making a big stink about a labelling program which would identify products as environmentally friendly (the symbol would a “flower” with fifteen petals as I recall). Apparently American paper manufacturers are pissed because the flower would only be placed on paper products that are as I recall chlorine-free (Europeans don’t use chlorine to make paper as a rule). They are trying to compare it to the Ontario-US beer war as I recall; but the difference is that Ontario’s fee on aluminum cans didn’t apply to non-beer products, where is the EU labelling will apply to all paper.

  8. all paper products

  9. “This is the same Pope who also opposes gay marraige.”

    Unlike the other Popes, I suppose?

    Glad to hear the Pope supports GM foods. It proves that at least one European has a functioning brain.

  10. Don,

    I’m not sure why being cautious about GM is irrational. Can you please explain this to me. Thanks.

  11. It’s easy to look down on GM foods when you are priviledged enough to live in a first world nation and have easy access to (and can easily afford) non-GM foods. But the reality is that the population of the earth today cannot adequately be fed by non-GM foods. Bottom line: non-GM foods are preferable to GM foods, and GM foods are preferable to starvation.

  12. What about the premise that these foods “hold the answer to world starvation”? That’s gotta be the dumbest statement since the Book of Genesis gave man dominion over the earth. There’s already enough agricultural production capability to feed everyone in the world.

  13. Brad S.,

    And nations that want to eat GM foods can go ahead and do so; hell, Africans can import all the GM foods they want to, as well as GM seeds, etc.

    The GM food debate has very little to do with “feeding the poor,” and much more to do with prying open European markets open to American agribusiness – the problem is that Europeans, reasonably or not, don’t want GM foods (opinion polling does indeed show significant resistance to their introduction). Now the EU is willing to compromise by allowing in GM foods as long as the US goes along with a labelling scheme, but the US is pitching a fit over said scheme and claiming that Europe is starving Africa because Europeans don’t want to import GM foods. Which is a blatant fabrication. Anyway, in my mind it ought to be up for the consumer to decide, and the best way to do this is allow a labelling scheme, which the US is currently opposed to and willing to fight over in the WTO as a violation of either Art. I or Art. III:4.

    Anyway, what you have here is what is often called a “Baptist-Bootlegger coalition.” GM food producers in league with people who a truly concerned about third world poverty.

  14. trainwrek,

    Starvation and such aren’t around because of technical problems; they exist largely due to fucked up social customs and corrupt governments. This is not an issue of a technological fix, its an issue of a social fix.

  15. It is not a blatant fabrication to link EU opposition to GM foods with the ongoing African catastrophe.

    In the first place, the EU has threatened any African nation that accepts GM foods as part of a relief package with a boycott on agricultural products, under the theory that the sterilized GM foodstuffs will somehow contaminate the local gene pool and thereby evil GM genes will thereby make their way into the precious bodily fluids of Europeans. This is charitably regarded as just the latest pretext for ongoing EU protectionism against African agriculture. The mandatory labelling scheme likely has more to do with the desire to beef up the EU’s protectionist policies regarding US agriculture.

    In the second place, GM foods hold significant potential to alleviate starvation and malnutrition. They can be engineered to provide more complete nutrition, for one thing, avoiding diseases that arise from inadequate diets. They can also be engineered to grow more reliably and produce more, an critical advantage in subsistence economies with marginal transport systems.

    As to why it is irrational to be “cautious” about GM foods – there is not one shred of evidence that any GM foods now in circulation have any adverse health affects at all. Americans have been eating the stuff by the gigaton for years, and nothing at all has surfaced. Sure, new GM creations should be carefully scrutinized, but there is no empirical support for the essentially superstitious idea that “frankenfoods” are inherently evil.

  16. “What about the premise that these foods “hold the answer to world starvation”? That’s gotta be the dumbest statement since the Book of Genesis gave man dominion over the earth. There’s already enough agricultural production capability to feed everyone in the world.”

    Due to that other great scientific step in agriculture, the Green Revolution. The last great technical “fix” allows Jean Bart to say: “its an issue of a social fix.”

    As the human population rises, we will need another great scientific step in agriculture, and that’s GM food.

  17. “I’m not sure why being cautious about GM is irrational. Can you please explain this to me. Thanks.”

    Because, 1) there is no evidence that GM foods are harmful, and 2) we need something like GM foods to prevent mass starvation (and promote mass prosperity instead) in the near future.

  18. There is no credence in the ideological arguments advanced by environmentalists.

  19. Didn’t Bush (or some other such higher-up) visit with the Pope recently? You don’t suppose there had been a little arm twisting going on, do you?

    And maybe a little tit-for-tat, too? What with the many catholic scandals going on?

  20. “Due to that other great scientific step in agriculture, the Green Revolution. The last great technical ‘fix’ allows Jean Bart to say: ‘its an issue of a social fix.'”

    If the Green Revolution was so successful, then why has mass starvation in countries like India and in many nations in Africa not been abated? You can have all the technology that you want – unless its used and used properly, it will do you no damn good. See, I’m not a technological determinist as you are – I assume that technology doesn’t make choicse for people, people do. In fact, to use an analogy, the logic of argument goes something like this – people don’t kill people, guns kill people.

  21. RC Dean,

    Let me get this straight – Africans bitch about the conditions of the charity they receive, and that is supposed to be an issue? *chuckle* This is a bit like a beggar demanding that all the handouts he gets be in twenties.

    And please, before you go on about European protectionism in the field of agriculture, please look at your own protectionism, and Japan’s as well for that matter. Americans always harp on about other nation’s being protectionist, then they slap tarriffs on foreign steel to protect their bloated, ineffecient, and failing steel industry. And let’s not get in the 2002 Farm Bill.

    As to the potential for GM foods, that’s great and all, and the US and Africa can use them to their own delight. No one is coercing Africans not to not use GM foods.

    Regarding the lack of data on GM foods and their potential harm to humans, well, all one can say is that many supposedly innocuous things have turned out to be deadly or otherwise deleterious. Simply because data is lacking doesn’t mean one should run headlong into the use of a new material, device, etc. This in international law is known as the “precautionary principle.” Europe can afford to cautious, so it will be. Africa may wish to throw caution to the wind and use GM foods, and that is their right. As to Americans using it for “years,” the first GM foods that I know of came into being less than fifteen years ago. And as far as I can tell, new GM creations aren’t carefully scrutinized; many don’t even go through the sorts of risk assessments that are done on rats to discover the carcinogenity of pesticides for example.

    Besides all of this, Europeans don’t want to eat these foods. You may view this as irrational, etc., but the fact remains that European governments, even if these are Baptist-Bootlegger coalitions the nations of Europe are responding to a continent-wide apprehension over these kinds of foods (BTW, not even remotely all GM foods are banned, the permit process was only suspended in 1998, when some 18 GM foods were already on the European market). To me the labelling proposal is the best solution to this problem, and certainly better than the crass US proposal that consumers not be allowed a choice whatsoever. And having actually talked to agribusiness folks from the US at WTO meetings, they admit that they are going to have to label even for the US market, because a significant portion of Americans don’t like GM foods either.

  22. RC Dean

    BTW, I would suggest that EU requirements regarding food aid are comparable to the Bush administration’s block on family planning aid to NGOs, etc. which discuss abortion as an option.

  23. “If the Green Revolution was so successful, then why has mass starvation in countries like India…”

    India has plenty of food. Indian warehouses are bulging with food. The only people without food in India are those without money to buy food.

    There is generally plenty of food for the world – it just doesn’t get distributed to the hungry for financial, logistical and political reasons.

  24. R C Dean: “…there is no empirical support for the essentially superstitious idea that ‘frankenfoods’ are inherently evil.”

    So, you’ve never eaten frankenberries?…

  25. “there is no evidence that GM foods are harmful”

    There is no evidence that GM foods are harmful to human health. There is strong evidence that they can be harmful to wildlife populations. It’s a lot of fun to dismiss inconvenient facts with references to precious bodily fluids and tin foil hats, but it’s a lot more respectable to deal with the facts honestly.

  26. Nature is constantly modifying foods genetically. It’s been doing so for millions of years. (You don’t think wheat just sprang up overnight, do you?)

    But no one calls nature “evil.”

    Man comes along, gives nature a helping hand, and suddenly man is “evil” for doing that.

    What kind of “logic” is that?
    http://www.techcentralstation.com/1051/techwrapper.jsp?PID=1051-250&CID=1051-073103E

  27. Tom C.

    I have observed that what the enviro-fundamentalists really object to is anthropogeny of ANY sort. It is a sin in the eyes of their god (Mother Nature, Gaia, Lugh, whatever).

  28. …….also, man has been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of civilization The real difference now is that we can now do it MUCH faster than selective breeding.

  29. “Somehow I don’t think you’d be so dismissive if it had been a big corporation that was robbed.”

    actually, i probably would be. it happens frequently enough — see any of the nationalized industries of the developing world.

    i have no innate love of any corporation. they are simply an effective tool to pool capital under limited liability.

    but i wonder, can anyone dig up the statistics: what percentage of arable land in africa has been confiscated and given to american corporations to “grow feed for big macs” — or other such evil purposes? i’ll postulate under 2% as a start. this is not a reason for macroeconomic problems i africa.

  30. Don,

    If labelling is popular in Europe, as it is, then why is it coercive? BTW, if Americans can force companies to label their products dolphin-safe, why can’t Europeans do so with GM-foods. Americans are duplicitous in this regard. You want to wreck the national sovereignty of others, force your dolphin-loving mores down our throats, and then when we ask you to do a similar labelling scheme, all you can do is bitch!

    B.P.,

    Well, if your country would stop threatening to dump a WTO challenged on Europe for labelling, maybe we might just let GM foods into Europe.

  31. As far as I can tell, the issue of organic vs. non-organic, GM vs. non-GM is a religious issue based on your personal beliefs about the proper way to grow vegetables (as someone above correctly pointed out, we’ve been genetically modifying foods for thousands of years and nature for millions so there’s no obvious distiction between them other than the intentional use of sophisticated technology to make the process more efficient). There is significant consumer demand regarding some of these things (due mostly to ignorance, in my opinion, but we must be respectful of other’s beliefs…). Yet I think there is no need to involve the government in this either on fraud grounds (preventing GM foods from being labled non-GM) or on consumer information grounds. There are other ways the market can provide. For example, private organizations that have a trusted reputation (and have a market interest in maintaining that trust) currently exist to certify the religious acceptability of certain foods. Any observant Jews that have bought Kosher products know what I’m talking about.

    Seriously, even if you don’t regard people’s preferences for certain types of foods as a ‘religious’ belief, is there any reason we can’t also leave certification to the market as well? I believe there are organizations out there that certify organic products already.

    I also agree that most of the people starving around the world are in such situations due to bad governments. However we in the west also aren’t helping the situation any by shutting out possible technological improvements that may help counteract bad politics (one can make a good argument, I think, that a developed capitalistic economy largely does counteract all but the most bumbling and stifling political decisions).

  32. Croesus,

    Personally I don’t support our (US) government’s mandatory dolphin labelling, nor the subsidies to the farm industry or the protection of US steel. So just because the US is doing the right thing by challenging the EU’s labelling scheme, doesn’t mean we ALL support the US Government’s other, hypocritical and special interest serving, policies on trade.

  33. As a confirmed ex-Catholic, I feel obliged to point out that the R.C. Church gets slammed unfairly about what its adherents are required to believe. The pope is said to be “infallible” when speaking “ex cathedra” on matters of faith or morals. see:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07790a.htm and
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05677a.htm

    When the U.S. Conference of Bishops releases a boneheaded white paper about welfare or U.S. foreign policy, Catholics, especially those with expertise in the areas written about, can tell the pointy-hatted clerics to get stuffed. Catholics can even disagree with the pope, UNTIL he explicitly plays the “infallible” card, as Paul VI did on birth control in “Humana Vitae.”

    This means that if your local bishop is wont to make idiotarian political pronouncements, the educated layperson is free to point out to his Excellency that he is talking through his pointy hat.

    Since the Pope hasn’t used the magic wand on this issue, faithful Catholics can join apostates like me, and those of other or no belief in argufying about it.

    Kevin

  34. “If labelling is popular in Europe, as it is, then why is it coercive? . . .”

    Is it popular with those who have to put on the labels?

    “. . . You want to wreck the national sovereignty of others, force your dolphin-loving mores down our throats, and then when we ask you to do a similar labelling scheme, all you can do is bitch!”

    Should dolphins be served with red or white wine? How about a nice pitcher of beer, as a compromise?

    I remember when the San Diego tuna fleet was basically wiped out (whatever survived moved to Ensanda, in Mexico) by “save the dolphin” regulations. It was real stupid. I’m sure that the dolphins are much saver since the fleet now flys the Mexican flag.

  35. “We don’t need to mandate that non-GM foods are so labelled; we need to mandate that GM foods are not allowed to pass themselves off as something they’re not.”

    Frankly, I don’t see the need to mandate either.
    However, as Jim said:

    “For example, private organizations that have a trusted reputation (and have a market interest in maintaining that trust) currently exist to certify the religious acceptability of certain foods.”

    Frankly, I think the actual companies can be relied upon to tell the truth–the market can punish companies that get caught in a lie. But private certification organizations might put your mind to ease.

  36. Bad news on the Pope front tonight.

  37. Thanks for pointing that out, kevrob.

    Question: When you say “confirmed ex-Catholic”, do you mean that you are an ex-Catholic who was confirmed, or that you are an ex-Catholic with a distaste for the Catholic church? Just curious about your meaning…

  38. Rob:

    I think you caught both my meanings. My parents had me baptized – without even checking with me first! I was confirmed at age 10, the average age at which we make decisions about what we believe for the rest of our life, right? After completing 12 years of Catholic elementary and secondary education, and on my way to obtaining a B.A. from a Jesuit University, I reconsidered the whole god-thing.

    I point this out to show that, while I have my theological differences with Catholics, it is not necessary to mischaracterize what they do believe in order to disagree with them.

    Kevin

  39. Ah yes, the precautionary principle. Let’s stop all technological innovation dead in its tracks, because you can never be too sure that something, some day, might be harmful.

  40. I was amused by “it’s all political’s” theory on the tit-for-tat between Bush and the Pope given the recent scandals here…I assume it’s been worse in America than the EU, so old pointy hat’s got more of backlash to make amends for. But I’m still a little confused as to why the Pope would suddenly go out for GM foods of all things. All pretensions of charity aside, what interest does organized relgion have in the alleviation of human suffering, especially when it won’t even be able to take credit for it? It’s just bad bussiness, the less suffering in the world, the less converts to be reaped.

  41. “Regarding the lack of data on GM foods and their potential harm to humans, well, all one can say is that many supposedly innocuous things have turned out to be deadly or otherwise deleterious. Simply because data is lacking doesn’t mean one should run headlong into the use of a new material, device, etc. This in international law is known as the precautionary principle.”

    and this doesn’t strike you as being extraordinarily similar to the Luddite principle?

    the problem with the precautionary principle is that it can and frequently is applied to everything in life by various risk-averse parties as an excuse to live in extended and aggressive denial of inevitable change. precautionary principle is a euphamism for irrational fear.

    i’m surely not suggesting that change needn’t be examined for risk. what i am saying is that applying this principle to foodstuffs that have been in mass market circulation for decades with no perceivable detriment and calling it ‘caution’ is specious. such excuse-making is, by turns, the manic paranoia of pseudoreligious technophobes and the cunning use of that paranoia by shrewd political interests to protect european agribusiness from the competition that would force it to change.

    i don’t believe i can talk anyone out of their principled faith, and i don’t intend to try — but this is the situation, nonetheless. that the vatican acknowledges the potential benefits to a burgeoning world population, whereas the western technocratic intelligensia sees only the secular equivalent of the book of revelations, is to me high irony. who is the one extorting wealth by preaching doomsday? who is more religious?

    and, as usual, religion in action is damaging. threatening to boycott african trade over this irrationality when commodity production and exports in africa could be boosted and made to serve the economic development of poor nations into sustainable economies is, de facto, a trade war. all western nations should quit their subsidies and protections for the benefit of all.

  42. “Jean Bart is right: the cause of starvation is not primarily technology, but power. Over the past few generations, hundreds of millions of peasants who formerly cultivated their own family plots have been evicted by landlord and general regimes in collusion with U.S. agribusiness, and wound up sitting in Calcutta with begging bowls, or in tin roof slums around Mexico City. And as was the case in the enclosures of early modern Europe, the Third World landlords were “owners” of the land only in feudal theory; by every moral right, the proper owners were evicted by force. And why? So the plots could be consolidated for Cargill to grow feed for Big Macs.”

    you can distort and complain about this, but global agribusiness is a fact and it isn’t reversing. the question now isn’t how best to launch an agrarian communist revolution; it’s how to build the wealth of these nations so that a self-sustaining middle class can develop — as it has in many market-oriented southeast asian nations. large-scale agribusiness is part of this, freeing unit labor for industry.

  43. Brad S.

    “But the reality is that the population of the earth today cannot adequately be fed by non-GM foods.”

    This is something I know something about, since I’m an organic gardener from way back. Comparing modern organic farming with traditional agricultural practices in the Third World is like comparing a Ferrari to a Model T. Intensive farming methods can produce huge increases in output from relatively small plots. Things like green manuring with leguminous cover crops, for example, can totally transform bad soil. So long as the subsoil is of high quality, a deep-rooted clover can simultaneously bring up soil minerals, loosen topsoil, and add organic matter and nitrogen. Water can be used a lot more efficiently with human scale technologies like cisterns to store water for dry seasons.

    Mechanized farming is more efficient in terms of output per unit of labor, but not output per acre. Agribusiness actually uses land pretty inefficiently, because it’s more lucrative in the short run to strip the soil of organic matter and minerals and add mushrooming quantities of NPK fertilizer every year, until there’s nothing left but sterile hardpan clay. But since labor is something the Third World has a lot of, and patented GM crops are expensive, intensive farming makes a lot of sense for native farmers.

    Jean Bart is right: the cause of starvation is not primarily technology, but power. Over the past few generations, hundreds of millions of peasants who formerly cultivated their own family plots have been evicted by landlord and general regimes in collusion with U.S. agribusiness, and wound up sitting in Calcutta with begging bowls, or in tin roof slums around Mexico City. And as was the case in the enclosures of early modern Europe, the Third World landlords were “owners” of the land only in feudal theory; by every moral right, the proper owners were evicted by force. And why? So the plots could be consolidated for Cargill to grow feed for Big Macs.

    Check out Frances Moore Lappe’s work. I’m not saying anyone should read her uncritically, but she’s a useful balance.

  44. Anon 1223:

    I don’t want an “agrarian communist revolution.” I just want to give the land back to the INDIVIDUALS and FAMILIES that rightfully own it. When a corporation is sitting on top of land that was stolen by the local government with its encouragement, giving it back to its rightful owners and getting rid of the oligarchy is precisely the question. This isn’t one of those cases where the theft is part of some “primitive accumulation” lost in the murky past three hundred years ago. This is stuff that happened in living memory, with both robbers and robbed (or their immediate heirs) still around. Somehow I don’t think you’d be so dismissive if it had been a big corporation that was robbed.

  45. “If the Green Revolution was so successful, then why has mass starvation in countries like India and in many nations in Africa not been abated?”

    If the Green Revolution wasn’t successful, there would be truely massive starvation, and not just in India & Africa.

    No, tech alone doesn’t solve the problem compeltely. But without tech, the problem can’t be solved. Tech is necessary but not sufficient, you might say.

  46. “To me the labelling proposal is the best solution to this problem, and certainly better than the crass US proposal that consumers not be allowed a choice whatsoever.”

    If lableing foods “non-GM” makes them more popualar, why can’t the “non-GM” food producers do that. Or are the we (Americans) opposing that? In other words, why not just have a free market labling solution, rather than one coerced by European governments? Then let the market (consumers) decide.

  47. “There is no evidence that GM foods are harmful to human health. There is strong evidence that they can be harmful to wildlife populations.”

    What evidence is that? All the ones that I know of have been debunked (the butterflies, etc.).

  48. “If lableing foods “non-GM” makes them more popualar, why can’t the “non-GM” food producers do that.”

    Because the same old crap will put in greenwashed packaging, unless regulations are in place to stop the non-GM companies from doing so. We don’t need to mandate that non-GM foods are so labelled; we need to mandate that GM foods are not allowed to pass themselves off as something they’re not. Let the market (customer) decide based on true facts.

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