Will Biotech Agriculture Feed The World?

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By Sean McDonagh, SSC

Sean McDonagh, S.S.C. is consultant to the General Council of the Columban Fathers on ecology and environment. Among his many writings are Care for the Earth: A Call to A New Theology, Geoffrey Chapman, London and The Greening of the Church, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. An international consultant on ecological issues, he worked among the T’boli people of Mindanao, Philippines for 20 years and has regularly lectured at the Pacific Institute, Sydney, Australia.

Recently a science journalist, Dr. William Reville, claimed that "GM food could be a blessing" (The Irish Times, 3 January 2002). In reading his article one would think that there are no dissenting voices regarding genetically engineered organisms in the scientific community. This simply is not true. In February 1999, 22 prominent scientists supported the publication of research by Professor Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland which showed that rats fed on genetically engineered organisms had suffered significant damage to their vital organs. Pusztai’s findings were suppressed by the Institute, he lost his post, and the scientists wanted to know why.

In September 2000 the US Food and Drug Administration began a safety investigation when it became clear that a variety of genetically engineered corn which was banned for human consumption was found in a popular snack. The genetically engineered (GE) corn produced by Aventis Corporation contained an inbuilt pesticide which could cause an allergic reaction in some people. Traces of the banned protein were found by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth in the cornmeal taco shells. These taco shells were being distributed by Kraft, a subsidiary of the tobacco company Philip Morris. The Royal Society in Britain, which had issued a positive report on GE foods in 1998, was much more cautious in its February 2002 report. It stated that, while there were no known bad health effects of GE foods, GE crops could cause allergies particularly among farmers and food industry workers. It also warned that GE technology "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods" and that baby foods were particularly vulnerable. Third World people whose diets are restricted could also be adversely affected. Professor Smith, one of the authors of the report, gave as an example poor people in central America, 50% of whose diet is composed of maize. Eating GE maize could have negative nutritional effects on those people (Brown 2002:10).

Recently, an article in the scientific journal Nature revealed that researchers at the University of California had found that the world’s oldest varieties of maize had been "contaminated" by genetically engineered maize. Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor of microbial ecology at Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, said that this is a very serious development. The regions where the samples were discovered are known for their diverse varieties of corn. These need to be protected from genetic pollution. English Nature also confirmed that a generation of "super weeds" has been found on the headland of GM crops and even in fields some distance from the GE crops in Canada. These weeds have accumulated genes from the modified crops and in turn have become resistant to a series of herbicides (2002:10). These are three very important critiques of the impact of genetically engineered organisms on human health and environmental well-being. There are many others but Dr. Reville and many other proponents of genetically engineered crops simply ignore the fact that there are genuine reasons for being opposed to GE organisms.

Toward the end of his article Dr. Reville steps outside his laboratory and promotes GE crops as a way to "feed the hungry Third World." This is not the first time this argument has been heard. Robert Shapiro, at the time chief executive of Monsanto, developed this argument in a long interview with Joan Magretta in the Harvard Business Review January-February 1997.1 He argued that genetic engineering of food crops is a further improvement on the Green Revolution that saved Asia from starvation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Critics of genetic engineering reject the argument that GE foods will stave off global famine. They also question the accepted wisdom that the impact of the Green Revolution has been entirely positive. Dr. Vandana Shiva, an Indian scientist and activist, in correspondence with Professor Norman Borlaug, considered by many to be the father of the Green Revolution, debunks many of the myths surrounding the Green Revolution. Dr. Shiva challenged the first myth that India was unable to feed itself until the Green Revolution was launched. She points out that the last famine in India took place in 1942 during British rule. She admits that in 1966 India experienced a severe drought and was forced to import 10,000 tons of grain from the US. She indicts the US administration who "exploited this scarcity in its use of food as a weapon and forced non-sustainable, resource-inefficient, capital and chemical-intensive agriculture on one of the most ancient agricultural civilizations in the world. American agricultural experts like Borlaug did not introduce the Green Revolution to ‘buy time’ for India. They introduced it to sell chemicals to India."2 People also forget that the replacement of traditional varieties by High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) is one of the main causes of biodiversity erosion in countries like the Philippines.

The same "feed the world" arguments are being recycled by the promoters of genetic engineering today. In reality, famine and hunger stem from a number of complex economic, social, and cultural factors rather than from the inability of peasant farmers to access GE super seeds. These include a lack of land reform and access to cheap credit and basic technology, social inequality, and, especially, the bias against women in many cultures.

These facts were recognized by the participants who attended the World Food Summit in Rome in November 1996. They acknowledged that the main causes of hunger are economic and social. People are hungry because they do not have access to food production processes or the money to buy food. Those who wish to banish hunger should address those social and economic inequalities that create poverty and not pretend that a ‘magic bullet’ technology will solve all the problems.

My own experience of 20 years in the Philippines confirms this approach. I lived in Mindanao during the El Niño-induced drought of 1983. There was a severe food shortage among the tribal people in the highlands. The drought destroyed their cereal crops, and the destruction of the forest during the previous decades meant that it was no longer a food source for them. Even during the height of the drought agribusiness corporations were exporting tropical fruit all over the world from their huge plantations less than 30 miles from where tribal people were starving. In fact, there was sufficient rice and corn in the lowlands at the time but the tribal people and many other poor people did not have the money to buy it. Had it not been for food-aid from non-government organizations (NGOs) many would have died.

I have one question for those who promote hi-tech solutions to famine and are silent on the economic, political, and social factors that cause poverty and malnutrition: Do they think that agribusiness companies will distribute genetically engineered food free to the hungry people? Given their dedication to bottom line profits, I think it is highly unlikely! Dr. Reville has forgotten that there are already some 70 patents on the so-called "golden rice." Millions in public funding went into developing this technology which was hailed as proof that biotechnology will help feed and supplement the diet of the poor who might be lacking in Vitamin A. The researchers Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer who developed the transgenic beta-carotene-enhanced rice were so afraid of the complexities of patent negotiations that they quickly signed the publicly funded technology to AstraZeneca (now Syngentia), one of the world’s largest agrochemical and biotechnolo-gical companies.3

Is Dr. Reville suggesting that agribusiness corporations are going to make their patented products available free of charge to subsistence farmers? Last year we saw how viciously pharmaceutical corporations pursued their patents on AIDs drugs in the courts in South Africa. They only called off the hounds when it became clear that the judge was going to scrutinize their financial accounts and they could not bear the subsequent embarrassment. Are we supposed to believe that the agri-business corporations would be more altruistic with their patents? Why then did they develop the "terminator" gene technology?

Even if one would argue that the risks posed by genetic engineering to human health and the environment are minimal and that regulatory agencies are independent, competent, and well, there are still sufficient ethical reasons to be opposed to patenting genetically engineered organisms. The fact is that the resources, for public environmental institutions in most countries, including the US, are woefully inadequate. While President George Bush has no problem spending an extra $48 billion dollars on the military budget in 2002, he cut the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 4% (Borger 2002:1).

When living organisms—once considered sacred and a gift from God in almost all religions and cultures of the world—are included under intellectual properties (IP), they are now seen as a human invention—a collection of genes and chemicals that can be engineered and bought and sold by the highest bidder. Many fear that within a decade or so the patents on all the staple foods of the world will be owned by a few Northern Transnational Corporations.

In considering patents it is important to remember two things:

Until recently patents could not be taken out on living organisms.

Patented laws differed from county to county and reflected the cultural and economic needs of particular countries.

The push to patent living organisms began in the US in the 1970s. A researcher attempted to patent a microbe and failed. Eventually in 1980, in a five-to-four majority, the US Supreme Court decided to patent life. The judgment stated that the "relevant distinction was not between living and inanimate things" but whether living products could be seen as "man-made inventions." One cannot exaggerate the momentous nature of this decision for the US and globally.

The Bible and Patenting

There is no direct reference to patenting in the Bible yet one can argue that the US Supreme Court’s view of life is radically different from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first line of the Bible insists that everything was created by a living God. All living beings, including human beings, are creatures of God. The Biblical tradition teaches that all beings have their own inherent value derived from the fact that they were created by God (Gen 1:12, 19-25). The notion of stewardship in the Bible does not mean that humans are seen as inventors or owners of life and that we are free to dominate and exploit other forms of life in any way we wish.

Furthermore, the Bible teaches that creation is an all-encompassing activity. It is not a once-off action in the distant past by a mechanistic God who immediately abandons the world to its own devises. Life in the Bible also has a strong communitarian dimension. Patenting is an attack on the understanding of life as interconnected and mutually dependent. It opts instead for an atomized, isolated understanding of life.

Opposition to patenting has come from a number of sources:

Third World farmers
Northern and Southern NGOs

The Union of Concerned Scientists in the US is opposed to patenting living organism. They contend that patenting will make products more expensive and less accessible. Patenting will create a climate of secrecy in science and hinder the normal exchange of information essential to promote scientific research. Today much scientific research is driven by the search for corporate profits and patent control than by a concern for human or planetary well-being. Many companies apply for patents to scare off competition by "staking out an area of research."

Patenting is opposed by Third World Farmers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They believe that patenting will promote unsustainable and inequitable agriculture. It will also give enormous control to a small number of agribusiness corporations.


Patenting will promote biopiracy. Patenting of Third World genetic resources by First World corporations represents theft of these community resources (Ruff 2002:44-45). Much of the raw material found used in genetically engineered food and medicinal plants is found in the Third World. In recent years biotech companies have been bio-prospecting in Southern countries, collecting biological and genetic material, patenting it and making huge profits.

Amid such contemporary venality and greed, it is worth remembering the heroism of many geneticists in collecting and preserving varieties in the last century. Pride of place must go to the geneticists who worked in the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad in 1942. The German army had surrounded the city and decided to starve the population until the Russian army surrendered. Over 600,000 people starved to death during the siege. Inside Vavilov Institute were numerous geneticists who had spent the previous decades collecting rare species of wheat, rice, and barley from places as far apart as Afghanistan and Ethiopia and China. The Russian scientists remained at their posts right through the siege and did what they could to protect the seeds from rats and mildew. Fourteen of the scientists died of starvation surrounded by small bags of seed that they could have eaten to stay alive. They preferred to give their own lives so that future generations would have access to this genetic diversity.

No such generosity of spirit accompanied the Uruguay Round of the General agreement on Tariffs and Trade that took place between the mid-1980s and early 1990s. It was concluded in 1994 and gave birth to the Word Trade Organization (WTO). Under pressure from the corporate sector in the US and other Northern countries the delegates pushed for "harmonization" in laws affecting intellectual properties (IPs). It is worth remembering that 70% of US export earnings are linked to patented items, from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDs) drugs to Disney, McDonald’s, and Microsoft. The resulting trade-related intellectual properties (TRIPs) agreement obligated all General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) signatories to adopt minimum intellectual properties for plants, animals, micro-organisms, and biological material, including genes. This was embodied in Article 27.3b of TRIPs. Technically, it allowed member states to exclude from patentability plants and animals, other micro-organisms, and essentially biological processes for the production of plants and animals other than nonbiological and micro-biological processes. But it goes on to state that members shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system by any combination thereof. In fact, the whole tone of the document supports patenting. Most Third World countries were expected to enforce such laws on intellectual properties by January 2000. The least developed countries were given 10 years grace.

With many others I argue that the whole area of biological and genetic resources should not be dealt with within the WTO but rather within the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is quite laughable to think that a process that is supposedly designed to promote "free-trade" in fact hands out monopolies to giant corporations for the most important of all commodities—food. This convention on biodiversity on the other hand aims to promote and protect species and genetic diversity and to ensure that there is a fair and equitable distribution of any financial benefits derived from these biological and genetic resources.

I argue that, since patenting life is ethically and religiously repugnant, NGOs and Church groups should work to amend Article 27.3b of TRIPs to read that "Member countries shall exclude from patentability all life forms, including plants, animals, micro-organisms and parts thereof; and also exclude from patentability all natural processes for the production of plants, animals, micro-organisms and all living beings."

Such a move would benefit Third World countries and would protect the natural world for all future generations.




1. Robert Shapiro, "Growth Through Global Sustainability," Harvard Business Review, pp 79-88.

2. Ecologist September/October 1997, pages 79-88.

3. RAFI, "Golden Rice and Trojan Trade Reps; A Case Study in Public Sectors Mismanagement of Intellectual Property,"RAFI Communique, Number 65, September/October 2000. http://www. rafi.org.





Brown, Paul

2002 "Scientists Warn of GM Food Risk," The Guardian Weekly, 7-13 February.

Borger, Julian

2002 "Defense spending gives $48bn boost in budget" The Guardian Weekly, 7-13 February.

Ruff, Anne Marie

2002 "Guarding the Region’s Riches," Far Eastern Economic Review, 31 January.



Sean McDonagh’s Response to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has shown interest in the biotech industry which has promoted genetically engineered crops, as a solution to world hunger. Although the Council has said it has not made up its mind on whether to accept GMOs or not, its recent Compendium on Catholic Social Thought seems to approve biotechnology. Sean McDonagh has been in dialogue with the Council. A recent reply from Bishop Crepaldi, its secretary, evoked the following response from him.


October 7, 2005

Dear Bishop Crepaldi,

Thank you for your letter of September 30, 2005. I appreciate the gracious words of the final paragraph where you assure me of your gratitude, and that of the Council for continuing to share with you regarding the important issues of plant biotechnology and the patenting of living organisms. Let me assure you at the outset that I have great respect for the Council for Justice and Peace. During my years as missionary in the Philippines, especially during the Marcos dictatorship, I found that the social teachings of the Church were very important for the Church’s ministry and my own work as a missionary. I would like you to read the rest of this within this context of respect.

I have difficulties with the first part of your letter in which you claim that "the world does in fact depend on biotechnology." It seems to me that you combine three different things, namely breeding, fermentation, and biotechnology proper. The defining characteristic of biotechnology is that it always involves recombinant DNA technology. This involves the transfer of exogenous DNA from one organism to another. Such changes were not possible until the early 1980s for two reasons, namely, that the insights into the science of genetics and the mechanisms for transferring and locating genes were both not available. It is with this biotechnology that many people, including Third World bishops, have grave concerns. Their concerns also include its impact on human health and the environment.

As you know the etymological root of biotechnology comes from two Greek words—bios meaning life and techne which means (human) art or skill. Technological inventions are not involved in sexual or asexual breeding. These are natural functions. The breeder often crosses strains within the species to obtain a particular trait in a plant or animal. However, no recombinant DNA technology was traditionally or is currently involved. That is why I question the claim that "the world does in fact depend on biotechnology."

Food production since the Neolithic revolution has never depended on recombinant DNA. Besides, alcohol brewing and cheese making did not involve the use of recombinant DNA technology. There are many other wonderful processes in nature, none more basic than photosynthesis, but people do not call that biotechnology. It is a natural process which is essential for all mammalian life, including our own.

Secondly, I note that the US Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical Academy of Science ran a seminar in September 2004 entitled Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology. The seminar was not about assessing the moral status of traditional breeding. It was about promoting genetically modified plants and animals as a way to tackle world hunger. While I disagree with their conclusions, there is no doubt about what they meant by biotechnology.

Finally, if you do a quick search on any internet search engine, for example, Google, and write in biotechnology, all the articles and institutes which will be found by the search engine will involve the use of recombinant DNA technology. Whatever about others, I believe that I "have not muddied the waters."I have a clear understanding of what is meant by biotechnology and it always involves recombinant DNA technology.

For this reason, when I read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church … I took it as an endorsement of biotechnology within clear moral limits. You are now saying that this is not so. Therefore, in the next edition of this very important book, it is crucial that you state that the social teaching of the Catholic Church does not, at present, endorse recombinant DNA technology because it is actively under study by the Council for Justice and Peace.

Returning to your letter, I find the statement that it is "the understanding of the Pontifical Council, for example that, the corn that is planted today has very little genetic similarity with that planted in the pre-Columbian Americas"strain. Maize like every other plant has a specific genome which sets it off from every other plant. Breeders can, of course, breed varieties in such a way that certain traits are maximised so that the plants today do not look like maize grown 500 years ago. They may look different but they all share the maize genome. Otherwise they would not be maize.

Nevertheless, it is very important for crop production today that we retain traditional varieties. When a virulent fungus attacked North American wheat fields in 1950, US and Canadian plant pathologists staved off disaster by turning to five Mexican wheat varieties and a number of imported ones to create a new strain which successfully resisted the so-called "stem rust." The current loss of crop biodiversity is very worrying and could cost us dearly in the future. That is why every step must be taken to protect our crops. I deal with this and other challenges to biodiversity in my recent book, The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction(2004), Columba Press, Dublin.

Finally, over the years, I have found that biotech companies promote their products by stating that genetic engineering is in continuity with the various improvements in breeding techniques that have happened since the Neolithic revolution. I challenge this analogy by pointing to a similar evolution in energy creation. Both striking a match and starting nuclear fission involve energy initiatives. Yet no one would say that they are similar. There is a huge chasm between them. In the same way there is a chasm between traditional forms of breeding, with all the sophisticated science that might be involved, and recombinant DNA technology.

In your letter you mention that "neither the development and use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) nor the question of patenting life are found in chapter ten of the Compendium." I would request the Council to give priority to assessing the morality of patenting life. I am enclosing a copy of my own book, Patenting Life? Stop! In that book, especially the last chapter, I argue that patenting living organisms is not consistent with the Christian faith. The core of this faith is that God created our living world and wishes it to be shared generously with all the peoples and creatures of the world. Patenting is about privatizing this world for the rich.

One of the reasons people put forward for promoting genetically modified (GM) food is that it could help solve world hunger. This is precisely why the Pontifical Council is studying GMOs. The latest figures from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) show that the positive trends in reducing the number of hungry and malnourished people that were reported in the early part of the 1990s have been reversed. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of chronically hungry people in the Majority World increased at the rate of 5 million per annum. This growth is from 800 million to 852 million. The best way to reverse this is to promote diverse and vibrant local food systems, not internationally controlled GM crops. This should be at the forefront of all agricultural policy at the local, national, and international level. In reality, what is happening is that priority in agricultural policy has been given, not to securing food sovereignty, but to promoting international trade. This reduces diversity and concentrates the wealth of the world’s food economies in the hands of ever fewer transnational corporations, while the majority of the world’s small-scale food producers, processors, and consumers, including the poor and malnourished, are marginalized.

The need to challenge patents on food is further underlined by the article from the Ecologist Magazine (October 2005) which I am enclosing. It tells that the Rice Genome Sequencing Project has been completed. This is a wonderful breakthrough for rice production. The same article recounts that the giant agribusiness corporation Syngenta has filed for 15 global patents on genes and gene sequences. This patenting will give it effective control over rice, which is the staple crop for one-third of the world’s population. That is what patenting does; it is a very worrying development. It hands over control of the staple foods of the world to a few wealthy corporations. This is a recipe for hunger, malnutrition, famine, and death.

Thank you once again for your letter. I appreciate the time you have taken to respond to my observations and concerns in a spirit of dialogue. I look forward to hearing from you again on these matters, especially on the issue of patenting food. Be assured that I am willing to help the Council in these matters in any way that I can.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Seán McDonagh, S.S.C.

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