Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

Genetically modified food crops could be used as “weapons of infliction of hunger and poverty” if they are managed unjustly, said the new head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Cardinal Peter Turkson told Catholic News Service March 9 that he would urge an attitude of caution and further study of the possible negative effects of genetically engineered organisms.

Under Cardinal Turkson’s predecessor, Cardinal Renato Martino, the justice and peace council sponsored several conferences on genetically modified food as a way to alleviate hunger in poor countries.

Agribusinesses and biotech industries that produce genetically modified organisms are justified in wanting to recoup the expenses laid out for research and development, and they have a right to want to make a profit from their work, said Cardinal Turkson, who took over the reins of the council in January.

But the issue becomes problematic when a company that controls the use of genetically modified seeds and crops is motivated more by profit than by “the declared desire to want to help feed humanity,” he said.

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There are also doubts about the efficacy and long-term effects of genetically engineered crops, he said.

“There are a lot of claims that are disputed (like) that GMOs never call for the use of pesticides or insecticides or anything because they are resistant,” he said. Such claims have been challenged, he said, and some say “at a certain point (these crops) require insecticides whose chemicals break up later in the soil and render the soil less fertile.”

Given the disputed claims and doubts, “I think that we should go easy and probably satisfy all of these objections to the full satisfaction of those who raise these objections,” he said.

The biggest concern is how small farmers are affected, he said.

Some critics say genetically modified crops could breed further dependence by small farmers on corporations who supply the seeds.

Because of the companies’ control over the patented seeds, “what is meant to alleviate hunger and poverty may actually in the hands of some people become really weapons of infliction of poverty and hunger,” Cardinal Turkson said.

“Everybody is for the advancement of science and everybody is for the improvement of human conditions and livelihood through the products of scientific research,” he said.

If further research and study on the effects and impact of GMOs could alleviate people’s fears and concerns, he said, then maybe “everybody can come on board to fashion food security for the world.”

Pope Benedict XVI has denounced the continued scandal of hunger in the world, saying its root causes have more to do with problems of distribution and sharing than with there not being enough food in the world.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said March 4 the Vatican has never pronounced an official position supporting or opposing genetically modified foods.

However, the paper said it was not a coincidence that in 2009 the use of genetically modified food crops grew by 13 percent in developing countries and that GM crops covered almost half of the world’s total arable land and yet “the number of hungry people in the world has for the first time reached 1 billion people.”

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