In Africa, Will New Seeds Bring a Better Life?

Genetically Modified Food a Key Issue for Continent

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By Robert Moynihan

WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 5, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The question of genetically modified seeds is, in itself, not a religious matter -- certainly not a matter of faith.

Yet, it is nearly a religious matter, because it is intertwined with issues of fundamental justice -- and of fundamental common sense -- which are of central importance to Catholics, as they are to all men of good will.

And that is why the preparatory document for the Synod on Africa, which opened today in Rome, among many other matters, also spoke about genetically modified seeds.

And that is why the Vatican itself has -- very cautiously -- been studying closely the question of genetically modified seeds in recent years.

I once traveled for two months across West Africa, from Algiers to Abidjan.

Africa, for me, means a vibrant place, a place of life -- even in the dryness of the Sahara. So I am on the side of those who wish that life in Africa be lived even more abundantly, that its tribal wars cease, and that it find its own way forward.

Once in Africa, I met a small boy, perhaps three years of age, with a cut on his heel. He scooped up the scrapings of a carrot I was "peeling" because it was dirty and I had no water to wash it, and quickly stuffed them in his mouth. There was no bandage on his cut. The wound was filled with dirt and a bit of white puss oozed out of the edges.

We found some water, and I washed the cut. The dirt and puss came out, and I covered the wound with a Band-Aid I was carrying with me. The cut healed.

The essential things are sometimes very simple: a bandage, or pipes for running water. Or, perhaps, improved plant seeds.

But are genetically modified seeds really improved?

Pro and contra

"On a continent, parts of which live under the shadow of conflict and death, the Church must sow seeds of life," Cardinal Peter Turkson said today as he opened the work of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops.

Everyone would agree, I think, that producing better crops would be a good thing.

But many African bishops fear that these seeds may make African farmers economically dependent on multinational companies that produce the new seeds.

And they worry that these new seeds, designed to resist certain diseases, may not be as good as promised, as super-diseases arise to attack the plants, and as the long-term effects of the modified plants on human health remain unknown.

There is a fundamental problem with some of these seeds: They are sterile.

That is, the plant grows, the fruit is produced -- whether corn or rice or wheat or soybean -- but the corn, rice, wheat, soybean is not fertile, so the seed cannot be set aside and used for the next year's crop, because it simply will not grow.

New seeds have to be purchased from the producing company each year.

Many of the bishops of Africa see this as a problem.

And they are quite right; it is a problem. For thousands of years, farmers have kept their seed for the next planting. This is the plain sense of the passage from Genesis, "while the world remains, seedtime and harvest time will not cease."

But this age-old cycle would be broken by this new technology. There would be seedtime, and harvest time, and then a new time: the time to buy next year's seeds from the agricultural company that supplies them.

The farmer would lose his or her ability to be self-sufficient, even if only on a subsistence level. The farmer would become totally dependent on the seed company.

The working document of the Synod of Bishops says this: "The seeding campaign of proponents of Genetically Modified Food, which purports to give assurances for food safety, should not overlook the true problems of agriculture in Africa: the lack of cultivatable land, water, energy, access to credit, agricultural training, local markets, road infrastructures, etc. This campaign runs the risk of ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding and making farmers dependent on the production companies [...] Will the synod fathers be able to remain unresponsive to these questions weighing so heavily on the shoulders of their countrymen?"

Hunger

However, just when African bishops are expressing their concerns about these new seeds, some Vatican officials have been suggesting that the seeds may be a good way to improve the yields of African farms, and so, help prevent future starvation.

Improving agriculture is the key to improving the lives of Africans, and all tools, including genetically modified seeds, must be considered to further that goal, said speakers at a symposium Sept. 24 in Rome on the topic "For a Green Revolution in Africa."

Farmers from South Africa and Burkina Faso were on hand to testify to the improvements in their farming and their lives when they introduced genetically modified crops on their land.

Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (he has just been made the bishop of the Diocese of Trieste in northern Italy, and so is no longer a Vatican official), said that underdevelopment and hunger in Africa are due in large part to "outdated and inadequate agricultural methods," and that new technologies "that can stimulate and sustain African farmers" must be made available, including "seeds that have been improved by techniques that intervene in their genetic makeup."

A valid point was made by Father Gonzalo Miranda, a professor of bioethics at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university, which sponsored the symposium. He said in support of new biotechnology that, "if the data shows that biotechnology can offer great advantages in the development of Africa, it is a moral obligation to permit these countries to do their own experimentation."

But the key phrase is "if the data shows."

And that is the real problem here.

Because the data is not yet clear.

And, in fact, there is a considerable amount of data that suggests that there are problems with the new seeds: They may require more water than the old seeds; they cost much more than the old seeds, tempting the small farmer into debt; and many are infertile, meaning new seeds must be bought each year.

These negatives were noted in an important May 1, 2009, article in L'Osservatore Romano by Francesco M. Valiante, a regular writer for the Vatican daily.

And they were noted by Cameroon's Archbishop George Nkuo in an interesting interview he granted to American journalist John Allen, Jr., published May 20, 2009.

Nkuo was present at a "study week" in Rome from May 15-19 held by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences to look at the entire problem of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He was the only African bishop, and one of the few non-scientists, who took part.

Unsure

"Objectively, if this technology really makes a plant more productive, if it's accessible to the poor, and there are no obvious dangers to health or the environment, then I think there's nothing wrong with it," Nkuo said after the meeting.

But, he added that he did not know whether all this -- higher productivity, accessibility to the poor, no side-effects -- is really true.

"I really don't know," he said. "That's my problem. I don't understand how the science can be so confused. I thought there was supposed to be objective evidence, but the science seems to be in conflict. I think it's amazing how divergent the opinions are.

"The pro-GMO people say these plants are environmentally friendly and pose no threats to health. The anti-GMO people say they are dangerous and there's a problem of safety. What am I to believe?"

If this is the situation, if a bishop who spent a week at a recent pro-GMO gathering in Rome still does not know what to believe, then it seems the prudent course is to withhold judgment until the facts are clear.

Therefore, it seems, it would be the prudent and sensible thing for the Synod of Bishops on Africa to state in their final document that the health and life of their people is paramount to them, and that all means will be embraced to improve that health and life -- provided that the data shows that it will be a true improvement, and not a dead end.

Africa should not be rushed into any decision on genetically modified seeds that it would later regret.

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Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book "Let God's Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI" (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan's blog can be found at www.insidethevatican.com. He can be reached at: editor@insidethevatican.com.