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Pope Francis' Encyclical Includes Ambivalent Remarks on Ag Biotech

June 23, 2015

On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis released on the Vatican website an encyclical letter that appeals to the world's leaders to take steps to heal the environmental damage caused by human activity and alleviate the likely impacts of climate change.

In his piece, Pope Francis Gives Measured Thumbs Up for Biotechnology, AgriPulse's Jim Webster writes that Pope Francis reaffirmed that the church values the benefits from utilizing molecular biology, supplemented by other disciplines such as genetics, and its technological application in agriculture and industry.

Webster also notes that Pope Francis echoed the mainstream scientific approach to agricultural biotechnology and suggested that each discovery be considered on a case-by-case basis and that the end result, not the process itself, should be taken into account:

“It is difficult to make a general judgment about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations, Francis writes. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application."

Genetic mutations, in fact, have often been, and continue to be, caused by nature itself. Nor are mutations caused by human intervention a modern phenomenon. The domestication of animals, the crossbreeding of species and other older and universally accepted practices can be mentioned as examples. We need but recall that scientific developments in GM cereals began with the observation of natural bacteria which spontaneously modified plant genomes.

"In nature, however, this process is slow and cannot be compared to the fast pace induced by contemporary technological advances, even when the latter build upon several centuries of scientific progress.”

Pope Francis agrees that “no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems.”

However, Webster does note that Pope Francis worries that small-scale farmers are threatened by technological change:

“Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.”

Drew Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at University of Oklahoma, College of Law, provided a very helpful evaluation of Pope Francis' position on agricultural biotechnology as laid out in the papal encyclical:

"The encyclical can be read favorably to agricultural biotechnology primarily because it does not condemn or attack science and technology. But at the same time, the encyclical clearly adopts a cautious approach to agricultural biotechnology. The encyclical is not against science or technology but worries about socio-economic concerns that I think are factually incorrect or overemphasized as 'significant difficulties.'

"In other words, although the encyclical would appear to favor agbiotech such as Golden Rice, the encyclical also has the tenor of a predisposition to favor 'agroecology' as opposed to 'sustainable intensification' as the way forward for agriculture. Note that I have said the encyclical has a 'predisposition' but not a 'commitment' (a belief) about the way forward for agriculture. The encyclical also has a firm commitment to international organizations and governmental planning as seeking the 'common good.'

"I do not share that belief because it ignores, in my opinion, the power politics that drives international organizations and governments. I do not share the belief that international organizations and governments are often, generally, (or even) ever seeking the common good."

Despite the Pope's mixed review of GMOs in the papal encyclical, The Hagstrom Report reminds us that Cardinal Peter Turkson, who has emerged as a key participant in the development of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and climate change, gave a lengthy address at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogues in 2013:
"In the speech, Turkson spoke positively of genetic modification as a way to feed the world, but also noted that one third of the food produced in the world today is wasted. He called for dialogue between proponents and critics of genetic modification."

Read more about the Catholic Church's involvement with the World Food Prize and Cardinal Turkson's remarks of the Church's favorable position on GMOs here.