By Fr. Bud Grant
It is worth probing more deeply into three specific areas of moral consideration in reference to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): are they detrimental to human health; do they threaten natural ecosystems; do they make the economic system less just?
First, are they safe for the consumer? It is shocking that this simple question has been politicized, isn’t it? Many who embrace the science of climate change are, despite lack of evidence, GMO-doubters. Countries that ban GMOs may be motivated to exploit health fears in covert economic protectionism.
Is the jury still out on GMO safety? Soothing research from Monsanto, General Mills or Cargill may not be free of bias. But the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, United Nations, the National Academy of Sciences and many, many others also say that GMOs are no more dangerous to public health than “conventionally” improved crops. Of course, there may be irony here, as “conventional” includes herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. In a strict sense, the jury is always out, scientists being more prudish than theologians about making absolute statements. Yet the weight of evidence suggests that GMOs are not a threat to those who consume them. On the other hand, if industrial agriculture is confident, it should not object to labeling products so the public would know when we are consuming GMOs.
Second, could these new life forms escape into nature and crowd out “native”’ competitors? The Great Potato Famine of Ireland in 1845-49 offers us a glimpse at the consequences of losing biological diversity. There was too little genetic variation among the potatoes brought from the new world to feed the Irish peasant. Thus a single blight, also from America, wiped out the crop. One million people starved, another 2 million were forced to migrate. This is not a singular tragedy. It strikes all staple crops. The lesson is clear: genetic variation is vital. The ultimate source of genetic variation is the DNA of wild source-species.
Gene (and now also animal DNA) banks all around the world store wild seed just in case there is another Black 47. This addresses (it does not solve) the human safety and economic threat, but it does nothing to preserve wild systems from being overrun by what we may as well call GMO weeds.
There is some confusion here. Most articles warning of “environmental” threats caused by feral GMOs are not addressing the ecological issue, but contamination of non-GMO agriculture, which happens “with some regularity” (Jennifer Clapp: “Illegal GMO releases and corporate responsibility,” c.f. GM Contamination Register). Ecological vulnerability is noted in the Rio Accord (15-16), but the salient question remains: do GMOs reduce biodiversity? We don’t know.
Finally, who benefits and who suffers from GMO agriculture? Organic farmers whose crops are contaminated by GMOs are stripped of their crucial “organic” designation. Contract farmers, especially in developing countries, are subject to a sort of high tech “serfdom,” having to purchase seed each year because GMOs are generally sterile (by design). GMO manufacturers benefit. Consumers benefit from cheaper and more plentiful food. Farmers drastically reduce expensive chemical input which, incidentally, benefits ecosystems.
What is the score? How do we weigh unknown threats to proven benefits? Economic injustice to feeding the hungry? Here’s some food for thought: St. John Paul II … stressed the benefits of scientific and technological progress as evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action” while also noting that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas.” The church values the benefits which result “from the study and applications of molecular biology, supplemented by other disciplines such as genetics, and its technological application in agriculture and industry.” But …this should not lead to “indiscriminate genetic manipulation” which ignores the negative effects of such interventions.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si 131.)
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)