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Pope Francis Joins Battle Against Transgenic Crops

There is no papal bull on transgenic crops in Laudato Si, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, “on the care of our common home” – planet earth. Credit: Norberto Miguel/IPS

There is no papal bull on transgenic crops in Laudato Si, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, “on the care of our common home” – planet earth. Credit: Norberto Miguel/IPS

MEXICO CITY, Aug 11 2015 (IPS) - A few centuries ago, the biotechnology industry would have been able to buy a papal bull to expiate its sins and grant it redemption. But in his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis condemns genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without leaving room for a pardon.

In his second encyclical since he became pope on Mar. 13, 2013 – but the first that is entirely his work – Jorge Mario Bergoglio criticises the social, economic and agricultural impacts of GMOs and calls for a broad scientific debate.

Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord” in medieval Italian – takes its title from Saint Francis of Assisi’s 13th-century Canticle of the Sun, one of whose verses is: “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

It is the first encyclical in history dedicated to the environment and reflecting on “our common home” – planet earth.

“In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production’.” – Laudato Si

The encyclical, which was published Jun. 18, acknowledges that “no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings.” But it stresses that “there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated.”

“In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production’,” it adds.

As a result, says the first Latin American pope, farmers are driven to become temporary labourers, many rural workers end up in urban slums, ecosystems are destroyed, and “oligopolies” expand in the production of cereals and inputs needed for their cultivation.

Francis calls for “A broad, responsible scientific and social debate…one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name” because “It sometimes happens that complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on the basis of particular interests, be they politico-economic or ideological.”

Such a debate on GMOs is missing, and the biotech industry has refused to open up its databases to verify whether or not transgenic crops are innocuous.

According to the encyclical, “Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future.”

Miguel Concha, a Catholic priest who heads the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Human Rights Centre in Mexico, said this country “is already a reference point in the fight for the right to a healthy environment, due to the determined efforts of social organisations. This encyclical reinforces our collective demand,” he told Tierramérica.

The priest said the encyclical warns of the social, economic, legal and ethical implications of transgenic crops, just as environmentalists in Mexico have done for years.

In a local market in Mexico, María Solís shows the different colours of native maize that she grows. Native crops are threatened by attempts to introduce large-scale commercial planting of GM maize in the country. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

In a local market in Mexico, María Solís shows the different colours of native maize that she grows. Native crops are threatened by attempts to introduce large-scale commercial planting of GM maize in the country. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The document holds special importance for nations like Mexico, which have been the scene of intense battles over transgenic crops – in this country mainly maize, which has special cultural significance here, besides being the basis of the local diet.

That is also true for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which together with southern Mexico form Mesoamérica, the seat of the ancient Maya civilisation.

The pope is familiar with the impact of transgenic crops, because according to experts his home country, Argentina, is the Latin American nation where GMOs have done the most to alter traditional agriculture.

Soy – 98 percent of which is transgenic – is Argentina’s leading crop, covering 31 million hectares, up from just 4.8 million hectares in 1990, according to the soy industry association, ACSOJA.

The monoculture crop has displaced local producers, fuelled the concentration of land, and created “a vicious circle that is highly dangerous for the sustainability of our production systems,” Argentine agronomist Carlos Toledo told Tierramérica.

Just 10 countries account for nearly all production of GMOs: the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Pakistan and Uruguay, in that order. Most of the production goes to the animal feed industry, but Mexico wants GM maize to be used for human consumption.

In July 2013, 53 individuals and 20 civil society organisations mounted a collective legal challenge against applications to commercially plant transgenic maize, and in September of that year a federal judge granted a precautionary ban on such authorisations.

Since March 2014, organisations of beekeepers and indigenous communities have won two further provisional protection orders against commercial transgenic soybean crops in the southeastern states of Campeche and Yucatán.

On Apr. 30, 2014, eight scientists from six countries sent an open letter to Pope Francis about the negative environmental, economic, agricultural, cultural and social impacts of GM seeds, especially in Mexico.

In their letter, the experts stated: “…we believe that it would be of momentous importance and great value to all if Your Holiness were to express yourself critically on GM crops and in support of peasant farming. This support would go a long way toward saving peoples and the planet from the threat posed by the control of life wielded by companies that monopolise seeds, which are the key to the entire food web…”

Laudato Si indicates that the pope did listen to their plea.

“The encyclical is very encouraging, because it has expressed an ecological position,” Argelia Arriaga, a professor at the University Centre for Disaster Prevention of the Autonomous University of Puebla, told Tierramérica. “It touches sensitive fibers; the situation is terrible and merits papal intervention. This gives us moral support to continue the struggle.”

But legal action has failed to curb the biotech industry’s ambitions in Mexico.

In 2014, the National Service for Agri-Food Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA) received four applications from the biotech industry and public research centres for experimental planting of maize on nearly 10 hectares of land.

In addition, there were 30 requests for pilot projects involving experimental and commercial planting of GM cotton on a total of 1.18 million hectares – as well as one application for beans, five for wheat, three for lemons and one for soy – all experimental.

SENASICA is also processing five biotech industry requests for planting more than 200,000 hectares of GM cotton and alfalfa for commercial and experimental purposes.

“This is an economic and development model that ignores food production,” said Concha, the priest who heads the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Human Rights Centre.

The participants in the collective lawsuit against GMOs, having successfully gotten federal courts to throw out 22 stays brought by the government and companies against the legal decision to temporarily suspend permits for planting, are now getting ready for a trial that will decide the future of transgenic crops in the country.

Arriaga noted that the focus of the encyclical goes beyond GM crops, and extends to other environmental struggles. “For people in local communities, the pope’s message is important, because it tells them they have to take care of nature and natural resources. It helps raise awareness,” the professor said.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

 
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  • Joan Russow

    The Science is not deemed certain because the scientific research has been undermined, published results, retracted, scientists,intimidated and vilified by the Powerful GM lobby.

    Under the precautionary principle, which has become a principle of international customary law, there is the affirmation that where there are threats of serious or irreversible harm to human health and the environment, the lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent the threat.

    Genetically engineered food and crops have contaminated the Global food system and undermined food security.The institutional Collusion, in relation to genetically engineered (transgenic) food and crops , among corporations, governments, universities and regulatory agencies has been widespread; this collusion has sadly spread to certain scientific publications. For the sake of food security for present and future generations: (i) this collusion must end; (ii) the precautionary principle must be invoked, (iv) genetically engineered food and crops, banned; (v) the charters of Monsanto et al, revoked; and (vi) charges of gross/criminal negligence against these corporations, levied

    There is a global petition at the following site:

    http://www.change.org/en-CA/petitions/the-un-general-assembly-institute-a-global-ban-on-genetically-engineered-food-and-crops

  • marcbrazeau

    I think he has biotech crops confused with combine tractors. It the capital intensive nature of contemporary farming that is leading to consolidation. Breeding methods have nothing to do with it. In India, Bt cotton has increased smallholder income and food security substantially.

    Very disappointing. Pope Francis was off to such a great start.

  • DWAIN HOLMES

    Amen!!The Pope needs to stick with religion!! He is into a lot of things He knows nothing about and is basically a communist in His thinking!!

  • DWAIN HOLMES

    The pope should stick to religion as He Knows nothing about this!! GMOs are not a danger!! Man has been modifying plants and animals since He started farming but what used to take generations is now done at the genetic level and in one generation!!If the world is to feed it´s ever growing population it needs to be using GMOs!! A prime example of this is Roundup ready grains!! They could have been developed without Genetic modification but it would have taken years!!The cocaine producers did it with poppies in Columbia!! They noticed that some of the fields being sprayed by the government with USA´s help had plants the Roundup was not killing so they used them for seed stock and they came up with Roundup ready Poppies!! GMO s use less water,chemicals and fossil fuels then regular plants and produce muck higher yields!!
    I am not affilliated with any chemical company and have no money invested in any way that I will make anything from GMOs but am am smart enough to see We have to stay ahead of the population curve in food production or there will be mass starvation down the road!
    I know people in Universaties and shemical companies working with this and not one agrees that GMOs are bad!!All say the same as I do!!

  • Greg Svensson

    The Pope knows that Monsanto and other companies and FDA and pro-GMO have had a lot of lies about GMO.

    GMO/GM is dangerious – that shows several studies – and the olny longterm study shows that kidneys and livers and so on is damaged, and the tumors got tripled with GMO. OK, that is rats, but there is a high propability that humans also get sick – look at the american health statistics. Ten years children in far sicker than their parents in same age. OK, we have more factors, but “modern” food as GMO is at least damaging other animals.
    And, the fertility decrease efter three generations GMO-feed- what about the americans from 2035?????

    So, the Pope know more about this than GMO trolls and other ignorant people…

  • Greg Svensson

    Independent (not Monsanto paid) scientists say THERE IS NO CONSENCES ABOUT GMO SAFETY. There is also a lot of studies showing that GMO is bad for animals (and probably bad for humans – can be one of reasons americans is the sickest persons in the industrialized world).
    About studies, look at three studies of Jose L. Domingo (2000,2006,2011) where he look at a lot of studies abot GMO and as you see there is no concensus – and a lot of studies find that GMO absolutely is NOT SAFE. (My remark: most of the studies that say GMO is safe is not done by independent scientists)

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