As Catholic cardinals selected Pope Francis in Rome on Wednesday, we watched an ancient church at its most medieval: obedient to tradition, cloaked in secrecy, and waiting for white smoke. The papal conclave appears positively anti-modern.
Yet in another sense, the Vatican stands in the vanguard of science and technology. It’s one of the world’s strongest supporters of genetically modified crops.
Many of us are still trying to learn about the new pontiff. We know a few things already. He is not only a man of faith, but also science–a chemist, by training. He’s from Argentina, whose farmers rely heavily on GM crops. And he professes a concern for the poor, who have the most to gain from 21st-century food production.
Farmers of all religious persuasions should take comfort from these views. “He will be able to better understand the Latin American continent–not only the poverty and the exclusion, but also the wealth of these lands,” said Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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I’m a cradle Catholic. Maybe you’ve heard our inside joke: I didn’t choose it; I was forced into it.
Growing up, I went to Catholic school. I’ve given my own kids a Catholic education, at least when I could afford it–and when I couldn’t, I’ve regretted the result. Our family eats fish on Fridays, even when it’s not Lent.
Catholicism has been an essential part of my life.
And that’s why I was so heartened several years ago to learn of my church’s stance on GM food.
In 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which advises the Holy See on scientific questions, organized a conference on farm biotechnology. It soon came out with a ringing endorsement: “There is a moral imperative to make the benefits of genetically engineered technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them, and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health, and protect their environment.”
Ever since I started growing biotech crops more than a decade ago, I’ve believed much the same thing. I saw the outstanding benefits of these plants with my own eyes: All of sudden, we were able to produce more food on less land. This was great for farmers, consumers, and conservation.
The advantages of GM crops seemed, for lack of a better word, miraculous.
They were certainly a blessing. As we produced an abundance of food, we became better able to help the needy here in New Jersey. A group of us formed Farmers Against Hunger. Biotech crops gave us a powerful new tool to generate surplus food and turn it into meals for our neighbors.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences understood the possibilities. Although its report didn’t amount to an official church teaching, it gave moral weight to the case for GM crops.
“We urge those who oppose or are skeptical about the use of genetically engineered crop varieties and the application of modern genetics generally to evaluate carefully the science, and the demonstrable harm caused by withholding this proven technology from those who need it most,” said the academy.
Vatican City may be tiny in size–at 110 acres, it’s smaller than my farm–but it’s also a sovereign state. In Europe, no government has a more advanced and charitable view of how to defeat hunger and malnutrition.
Not that the Vatican has a lot of competition. The European Union’s disapproval of GM crops is both ignorant and tragic. It’s bad enough that farmers in France, Italy, and Poland can’t grow GM crops the way we do in the United States and throughout the Western hemisphere. It’s even worse that European attitudes still shape the policies of many former European colonies, especially in Africa.
Because of Europe’s unscientific views, many developing nations have refused to adopt the hunger-fighting, life-saving tools of biotechnology. As a result, people who have the most to gain are undernourished or starving.
The Roman Catholic Church often comes under harsh criticism for its throwback ways. I still remember when our church held Sunday Mass in Latin.
When it comes to the technology of food production, however, the Vatican remains true to its oldest principles while also standing at the forefront of science.
Let’s hope Pope Francis shares this humane vision–and that Europe and the rest of the world join biotechnology’s growing flock.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).