Vatican backing sparks GM row
Report set to anger Catholics in developing world
John Hooper in Rome and John Vidal
Plans being laid at the Vatican to throw the Pope's vast moral influence behind the cultivation of genetically modified crops have sparked a row within the church.
An Italian archbishop, Renato Martino, is the prelate behind the pro-GM lobby and the equivalent of a minister in the Pope's government. His department, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with ethical issues, is preparing to publish a report on the use of biotechnology in agriculture which, the archbishop has already hinted, will give a favourable verdict.
He told Vatican radio: "The problem of hunger involves the conscience of every man. For this reason the Catholic church follows with special interest and solicitude every development in science to help the solution of a plight that afflicts ... humanity."
His remarks have angered Catholic clerics working in the developing world. Father Giulio Albanese, head of the missionary news agency, MISNA, described them as a "provocation". In a statement, the influential Fr Albanese stressed: "The concern of many in the missionary world over the property rights to GM seeds ... cannot but accentuate the dependence of the poor nations on the rich ones."
Opposition to GM technology is growing rapidly within the Catholic church. "We do not believe that agro-companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century," said bishops from Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland in a statement.
The bishops said it was morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food and warned of damage to the environment and human health. "We think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems and that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
In the Philippines, the Catholic Bishops Conference has urged the government to postpone the authorisation of GM corn until comprehensive studies have been made. "We have to be careful, because once it is there, how can we remedy its consequences?" said Cardinal Rocardo Vidal.
GM supporters in the Vatican are thought to have been so worried about the position of Filipino local clergy that they called them to Rome to be addressed by a leading ethicist, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life
"There are no impediments to animal and vegetable biotechnologies," Sgr Sgreccia told them. "[They] can be justified with the motive that they are for the good of man."
In Brazil, 14 bishops appealed to the government last month not to allow GM crops to be grown. "It is clear that large corporations will be the greatest beneficiary, with grave damage for the farmer", they said.
Catholics in other developing countries are split between their hierarchies, who tend to be pro-GM, and the lower orders who work with the poorest and tend to be against it. Zambian bishops supported GM food aid earlier this year but were strongly opposed by Jesuits from the Centre for Theological Reflection.
The Pope has so far been cautious. Two years ago, he set the tone for a wide-ranging inquiry when he declared that GM agriculture could not be judged solely on the basis of "short-term economic interests", but needed to be subject to "a rigorous scientific and ethical process of verification".
A church official who has met Archbishop Martino described him as "unusually forthright and voluble". The official added that the eventual report from the Vatican might be couched in more ambiguous language - not least because he expected a determined campaign by developing world clerics to water it down.
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