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Vatican cites biotech crops’ downside

Seems to aim for nuanced stance

By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press / January 5, 2011

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VATICAN CITY — A Vatican cardinal backed off the Holy See’s perceived approval of biotech crops yesterday, saying farmers in the developing world should not be dependent on foreign multinationals for their seeds.

Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson, a Ghanian who heads the Vatican’s office for justice and peace, likened such economic dependence on big corporations to a new form of slavery.

It was the second time in a month the Vatican has made clear that while it is not entirely opposed to biotech foods, it is firmly not in favor of them, either. The United States, home to major multinationals that produce biotech seeds and crops, has lobbied the Vatican for years to speak positively about genetically modified organisms, calling biotech a “moral imperative’’ to feed the world’s hungry.

And for years Turkson’s predecessor, Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, obliged, touting the benefits and safety of genetically modified organisms and even hosting a biotech conference at the Vatican in 2003.

But Turkson reversed course in an interview yesterday with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. While saying he personally wasn’t for or against the organisms, Turkson said the key issue concerns giving farmers access to suitable land that hasn’t been eroded by multinational logging or mining companies.

“As a result, you wouldn’t need any genetic engineering,’’ Turkson told the paper. “In this way, the farmer wouldn’t have to buy GMOs from abroad. I ask myself, why force an African farmer to buy seeds produced in other lands and with other means? The doubt arises that behind this is the play of maintaining economic dependence at all cost.’’

“I’d even say it becomes like a new form of slavery,’’ he added.

Last month, a Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, put out a statement about the organisms after Italian news agencies erroneously reported that the Vatican had come out in favor of them during a conference.

The conference was held at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences and its final paper was favorable to genetically modified crops. But Lombardi noted that only seven of the 40 scholars who attended were academy members. As a result, he said, the final statement was not an official position of the academy or the Holy See.

The Vatican’s position on genetically modified organisms has been carefully watched, given the moral weight of its positions concerning combating poverty and hunger. US cables from the WikiLeaks trove of documents illustrate how critical the Vatican’s position was — and how the United States tried to sway it in light of resistance from some parts of the Catholic Church.

One cable concluded that there was “cautious acceptance’’ of biotech food by the Holy See but that economic dependence was a concern, particularly for Catholics in the developing world, and that regardless the Vatican wouldn’t challenge individual bishops who opposed them.

Washington’s greatest ally in the lobbying effort was Martino, who would frequently refer to all the genetically modified organisms he safely ate while living in New York as the Vatican’s UN ambassador. But the cables indicate Martino may have merely been playing a good diplomat.

“A Martino deputy told us recently that the cardinal had cooperated’’ with the embassy on biotech over the past two years in part to compensate for his “vocal disapproval of the Iraq war and its aftermath,’’ and to keep relations with the US government smooth, according to one cable.

“According to our source, Martino no longer feels the need to take this approach,’’ the cable said.

The Vatican has said the WikiLeaks cables do not reflect official Vatican positions.

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