Genetically Modified Organisms

| February 19, 2010 Print

“Modern biotechnologies have powerful social, economic, and political impact locally, nationally, and internationally. They need to be evaluated according to the ethical criteria that must always guide human activities and relations in the social, economic, and political spheres.

“Above all the criteria of justice and solidarity must be taken into account. One must avoid falling into the error of believing that only the spreading of the benefits connected with the new techniques of biotechnology can solve the urgent problems of poverty and underdevelopment that still afflict so many countries on the planet.”
-Pope John Paul II, Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 1981

The threat posed by genetic engineering to the integrity of creation and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers is of deep moral and social concern to Columban missionaries.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by the transfer of genetic material from one organism to another to create new organisms with particular characteristics. The long-term effects of GMOs are poorly understood, but preliminary studies show worrisome trends for health, biodiversity and local community life.

Genetic engineering raises many social concerns, with particularly harmful consequences for local community life. Under patent laws that allow multinational agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies to “acquire” local knowledge and then claim it as their own, local farmers and communities lose control over traditional knowledge of crops, food production and distribution.

Farmers are forced to purchase seeds that, until now, have been shared and stored freely for centuries, thus leaving their security at the hands of these corporations.

Because most of the world’s farmers are poor, they cannot afford the fees charged for patented seeds, and are either pushed heavily into debt with creditors or slowly displaced them from their livelihood, often leading to rural, urban or international migration.

In addition to farmer displacement, migration and a monopoly on the world’s food system, the fear is that GMOs may be a risk to human health by causing a host of complications, including allergies, new and threatening viruses, some cancers, and respiratory and gastrointestinal reactions.

There has been some research done in this area. While the results are inconclusive, there remain too many health concerns to be able to deem this technology safe for human or animal consumption.

Many environmentalists have reacted strongly against genetically modified (GM) technology because of the potential imbalance it could have on the world’s biodiversity. Environmentalists caution that while the use of GMO crops could wipe out or significantly reduce a particular pest or weed for a time, they also can foster resistance in that particular pest or weed or the increase of other pests or weeds not resistant to the same GMO crop.

Therefore, new technology is continually needed to combat the problem, fostering a greater dependence on GMO crops. Many also fear that by cross-pollinating with wild varieties, GMOs could dominate and wipe out essential diversity within species.

There is a heated moral and ethical debate surrounding GMOs, and religious groups are among the loudest voices. Some scientists, environmentalists and religious leaders call for the adoption of the precautionary principle that says that we should not proceed with GM technology when there remains such uncertainty about the possible effects these crops can have on human health and the environment.

Since there so much conflicting data exists about long-term consequences of GMOs, is it not wise to move slowly?