Response from Fr. Sean McDonagh to US lobbying of the Vatican (15/11/2005)

Father Sean McDonagh, SSC <[email protected]> is a Columban Missionary who has worked in the Philippines. He has asked for this draft response to US lobbying of the Vatican to promote GM crops in Africa to be circulated.

Damage to Health and Environment from GMOs Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

The new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney, is continuing the campaign of his predecessor, James Nicholson, to get the Vatican to endorse genetically engineered foods. In his first audience with Pope Benedict XV1 he repeated the same line as Nicholson that there is a "moral imperative" to investigate the possible benefits of (biotech) agricultural technology to the world's hungry.

Nicholson organized a seminar on the same theme in the Gregorian University in conjunction with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in September 2004. All the speakers were avidly pro-biotech agriculture, which if it becomes widespread will make trillions of dollars for U.S. biotech companies.

Speaking from the floor at that seminar I reminded Ambassador Nicholson that the main problem facing agriculture in the next 40 years is global warming. Glaciers like those in the Himalayas and Andes are melting causing major problems for rivers such as the Ganges, the Indus, the Bramaputra, the Mekong and the Yangtze. These rivers help irrigate crops for one third of humanity. I reminded the ambassador that his country had not signed the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the U.S. also refused to sign the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. All agriculture depends on robust biodiversity and, finally, the U.S. had not signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Given this serious level of irresponsibility by the U.S. government I find their concern for 'feeding the world' spurious. It also overlooks the major problems that GMOs can cause to human health and the environment.

GMO soy affects posterity

On October 10, 2005 during a seminar on genetic modification organized by the National Association for Genetic Security (NAGs) Irina Ermakova, who has a doctorate in biology, made public the results of research which she had been conducting at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). This is the first research that determined some clear relationship between eating genetically modified soya and the posterity of living creatures.

During the experiment Ermakova added GM soya flour to the food of female rates two weeks before conception, during conception and during nurturing. In the control group were the female rats who received no additions to their food. The experiment was formed by 3 groups of rats with 3 female rats in each group. The first group was the control group; the second group was the one where the rats received and addition of GM soy, and the third group received non-GM soy. The scientists counted the number of females who gave birth, the number of rats born and the number of rats that died. The researchers found that there was an abnormally high level of deaths among rats that were born to females who had received GM soy in their food. In addition 36% of rats born to such mothers weighed less than 20 grams. In other words they were in an extremely poor condition.

Because the morphology and biochemical structures of rats are similar to humans this makes the results very disturbing according to Dr. Ermakova. It also places an onus on public authorities to engage in full scale tests of GM-products before they are made available to human beings or animals that humans will eat.1

In a lecture to scientists in New Delhi on November 7, 2005 Dr. Arpad Pusztai summed up the position on the potential dangers to human health from GE crops. He claimed that so far only a few [adequately devised] animal studies had been completed. He alleged that the industry's and regulators' preferred "safety assessment" is based on the poorly defined and not legally binding concept of "substantial equivalence". In such a situation it is difficult to conclude that GM foods are safe.2

The well known Canadian scientist and broadcaster, David Suzuki takes the same approach. In April 2005 he told journalists that, "anyone that says 'Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,' I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying. The reality is we don't know. The experiments simply haven't been done and we are now becoming the guinea pigs."3

Gene flow does take place

In recent years many biotech scientists and regulators often dismissed the possibility of genetically engineered crops becoming superweeds. They also argued that 'gene flow' which involves the transfer of genes from transgenic plants to a weedy relative, would seldom take place. Opponents of genetic engineering have always argued that if a herbicide resistant gene jumped to a genetically engineered plant to a wild weedy relative, that plant might become resistant to the particular herbicide. This form of genetic pollution could easily become a major nuisance to farmers worldwide.

In July 2005 the British Government published on an obscure website details of how genes from a genetically engineered oilseed rape (Brassica napus) had transferred to wild relatives in farm trials. The study was conducted by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a government research centre at Winfrith in Dorset. The researcher found a GE version of the common weed charlock (Sinapis Arvensis) in a field where GE oilseed rape had been grown for the past two years. They also found that resistance was transferred to field mustard at a farm in Shropshire. The transfer to field mustard was always on the cards as they are close relatives but the transfer to charlock came as a surprise as it is only distantly related to oilseed rape. Charlock is also a very common plant so the fact that pesticide-resistant gene was passed to charlock is a cause for real concern. The fear now is that if GE oilseed rape is grown commercially pollen from contaminated plants could spread throughout the country leading to the growth of plants which are immune to certain herbicides. The danger is very real. In 2003 research conducted for the British government found that oilseed rape pollen could travel over 16 miles; this is 6 times what was previously believed. Furthermore, charlock seeds can remain in the ground for 20 to 30 years before they germinate.

According to English Nature, the government wildlife watchdog, a single herbicide resistant weed in several million could inexorably take over British farmlands In such a scenario farmers would have to use more chemicals and more nasty ones to control the plant. This would contradict one of the arguments presented by those who favour GE plants that they involve the use of less pesticides.

It would also mean that co-existence between GE and organic plants would be impossible in a country like Britain or Ireland. Within a few years all the organic plants would be affected by GE pollen. This would have a devastating impact on conventional and organic farmers. Speaking at a seminar organised by Consumers International (CI) in Bologna, Italy, David Cuming advised: all countries worldwide must introduce strict rules to prevent contamination, and allow for GM-freed zones, before allowing GMOs in their countries. The EU must wait until they have completed the full review of 'coexistence' in Europe before approving new GMO crops.4

At the same conference Professor Ignacio Chapela said that he believed that coexistence was biologically impossible. For him it is not a question whether it will happen, it is a question of when and how much. "We do not have the political will, the technical capacity or the independence of thought to deal with 'co-existence'; neither to monitor its development, nor to remedy its consequence." Proposed biosafety and bioethical frameworks will not prevent contamination.5

The above research also revealed a disturbing unwillingness on behalf of the British government to protect the British environment from genetic pollution. Despite the knowledge about the pollution of common charlock by GE oilseed rape the UK Environment Minister, Elliot Morley, attempted at the European Union earlier in July to get France and Greece to lift its ban on oilseed rape. The Minister justified his action by saying that he was voting in line with the best available scientific evidence despite the fact that his own department was in possession of data which confirmed the risk of genes escaping from GE oilseed rape.

Hopefully, these findings will put the nail in the coffin of GE oilseed rape since previous government sponsored studies have found that it is seriously damaging to biodiversity.

Widespread Contamination of Papaya Crop by GE Varieties

Researchers in Hawaii in September 2004 reported widespread contamination of traditional stock from the world's first commercially planted genetically engineered tree, the papaya. This took place on Oahu, the large island and Kauai. Contamination was also found in the stock of non-genetically engineered seeds being sold commercially by the University of Hawaii. Dozens of outraged farmers, consumers and backyard growers brought the contaminated stock back to the university and demanded that the University of Hawaii come up with realistic plan for cleaning up this papaya contamination. The protesters also called for liability protection for local growers and the prevention of GMO contamination of other commodity crops which are grown in Hawaii.6

Speaking in New Delhi in November 2005 Dr. Arpad Pusztai pointed out that a review carried out by Wolfanberger and Phifer and published in Science in 2000 concluded that the most pertinent questions on the environmental safety of GM crops have not been asked for, let alone studied.7


1.Genetically modified soy affects posterity: Results of Russian scientists' studies. 11/08/2005

2.Ashok B Sharma, Are GM foods safe enough? Financial Express, November 7, 2005. 11/11/2005

3.Angela Hall, Suzuki warns against hastily accepting GMOs, The Leader-Post (Canada) April 26, 2005. 11/09/2005.

4."coexistence impossible, Bologna conference told, 9/9/2005


6.Hawaii Reports Widespread Contamination of Papaya Crop by GE Varieties, Organic Consumers Association. 11.11.2005

7.Ashok B Sharma, "Are GM foods safe enough?" Financial Express, November 7, 2005. 11/11/2005


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