VATICAN CITY, Nov 11 - Two Jesuits told a Vatican biotech conference Tuesday that tinkering with God's creation by making new plant species went against church teaching, adding a moral voice to a debate dominated by scientific, political and economic interests.
A joint paper by the Rev. Dr. Roland Lesseps and the Rev. Peter Henriot, Americans based in Lusaka, Zambia, was presented to the final session of a two-day meeting on genetically modified foods that was designed to help the Roman Catholic Church formulate a position on whether biotech foods can help alleviate world hunger.
No date has been set for when the Vatican might come out with its pronouncement, and the conference organizer, Cardinal Renato Martino, said Tuesday it could take time, even years. But in his final remarks, he indicated he remained favorable to the technology and encouraged scientists to continue their work.
"This council will do everything necessary so that its contribution to illuminate the conscience is not wanting, so that plant biotechnologies become an opportunity for all and not a threat," he said. "This seminar has made us understand that the field of GMOs will not be abandoned, even if it needs more care."
Martino has frequently spoken out about the potential benefits of GM foods as a way of alleviating world hunger, and says the church has a duty to follow any new science that might benefit mankind. He says he convened experts in the field so the Vatican could make an informed decision, although critics said the majority of participants were pro-biotech.
The issue of world hunger is of particular concern to the Vatican, which denies responsibility for contributing to the problem, rejecting arguments that its ban on contraception helps fuel food insecurity by promoting larger families.
Martino said Tuesday he still believed that GM foods offered hope to the hungry, despite having heard from GM critics that it offered no such benefits and that the only way to alleviate hunger was to address the underlying causes of it: poverty, unequal land distribution, and lack of access to markets, among others.
The bulk of the seminar dealt with issues such as the technology behind modifying soy, corn and cotton so it can resist insects and disease, food safety, and commercial and environmental concerns. Many scientists stressed that the technology was safe, was carefully regulated and that no one to date had suffered any ill effects from it.
"Although I must say there is no zero risk in life - everything is risky - we can provide with our methods a very high level of safety assurance," said Dr. Harry Kuiper, a food safety expert at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
In remarks to the conference Tuesday, Lesseps, said he wished that recent statements expressing concern about GMOs from church leaders in the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa had been included in the seminar.
Lesseps also suggested that the session on the moral implications of biotech research might have better served the conference had it occurred at the start, so that discussions on the technical aspects of the debate could have been evaluated from an ethical perspective.
But the Jesuits' main concern was that an endorsement of genetic engineering, the technology of splicing genes to create new plant forms, disregarded "the awesome goodness of God's creation" and went against the social teachings of the church.
"Nature is not just useful to us as humans, but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in Christ," they said. "The right to use other creatures does not give us the right to abuse them."
In their remarks, the churchmen urged the Vatican to follow the so-called precautionary principle concerning GMOs, which stipulates that if there's any indication there might be a negative impact from releasing GM products into the environment, they shouldn't be released.
They quoted Pope John Paul II himself as saying the world was not yet in a position to assess "the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life."
Lesseps and Henriot said the church's social teachings calling for respect for human rights and respect for the natural world required that the precautionary principle be applied. Similarly, they said that the Vatican's long-held position expressing solidarity with the poor required that it not embrace technology that would make the developing world ever more dependent on the industrialized world for its GM seeds.
Zambia sparked international headlines last year when it refused to accept GM food aid from the World Food Program donated by the United States.
Lesseps told reporters that he had to take Martino's word that the Vatican merely wanted to learn more about a complex issue so it could take a final position on it.
"Now it does seem that Cardinal Martino himself is in favor of the wider use of GMOs in agriculture," he said. "And I of course just don't know if anything that happened at this seminar is going to affect his position or not."