"Pope Francis Joins Battle Against Transgenic Crops" by Emilio Godoy.
IPS News, Aug 13, 2015
MEXICO CITY, Aug 11 2015 (IPS) - A few centuries ago, the
biotechnology industry would have been able to buy a papal bull to
expiate its sins and grant it redemption. But in his encyclical on the
environment, “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis condemns genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) without leaving room for a pardon.
In his second encyclical since he became pope on Mar. 13, 2013 – but
the first that is entirely his work – Jorge Mario Bergoglio criticises
the social, economic and agricultural impacts of GMOs and calls for a
broad scientific debate.
Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord” in medieval Italian – takes
its title from Saint Francis of Assisi’s 13th-century Canticle of the
Sun, one of whose verses is: “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister
Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits
with colored flowers and herbs.”
It is the first encyclical in history dedicated to the environment and
reflecting on “our common home” – planet earth.
The encyclical, which was published Jun. 18, acknowledges that “no
conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human
beings.” But it stresses that “there remain a number of significant
difficulties which should not be underestimated.”
“In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive
land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the
progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of
the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct
production’,” it adds.
As a result, says the first Latin American pope, farmers are driven to
become temporary labourers, many rural workers end up in urban slums,
ecosystems are destroyed, and “oligopolies” expand in the production
of cereals and inputs needed for their cultivation.
Francis calls for “A broad, responsible scientific and social
debate…one capable of considering all the available information and of
calling things by their name” because “It sometimes happens that
complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on
the basis of particular interests, be they politico-economic or
Such a debate on GMOs is missing, and the biotech industry has refused
to open up its databases to verify whether or not transgenic crops are
According to the encyclical, “Discussions are needed in which all
those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil
authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated
fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and
have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make
decisions for the common good, present and future.”
Miguel Concha, a Catholic priest who heads the Fray Francisco de
Vitoria Human Rights Centre in Mexico, said this country “is already a
reference point in the fight for the right to a healthy environment,
due to the determined efforts of social organisations. This encyclical
reinforces our collective demand,” he told Tierramérica.
The priest said the encyclical warns of the social, economic, legal
and ethical implications of transgenic crops, just as
environmentalists in Mexico have done for years.
The document holds special importance for nations like Mexico, which
have been the scene of intense battles over transgenic crops – in this
country mainly maize, which has special cultural significance here,
besides being the basis of the local diet.
That is also true for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and
Costa Rica, which together with southern Mexico form Mesoamérica, the
seat of the ancient Maya civilisation.
The pope is familiar with the impact of transgenic crops, because
according to experts his home country, Argentina, is the Latin
American nation where GMOs have done the most to alter traditional
Soy – 98 percent of which is transgenic – is Argentina’s leading crop,
covering 31 million hectares, up from just 4.8 million hectares in
1990, according to the soy industry association, ACSOJA.
The monoculture crop has displaced local producers, fuelled the
concentration of land, and created “a vicious circle that is highly
dangerous for the sustainability of our production systems,” Argentine
agronomist Carlos Toledo told Tierramérica.
Just 10 countries account for nearly all production of GMOs: the
United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, China, Paraguay,
South Africa, Pakistan and Uruguay, in that order. Most of the
production goes to the animal feed industry, but Mexico wants GM maize
to be used for human consumption.
In July 2013, 53 individuals and 20 civil society organisations
mounted a collective legal challenge against applications to
commercially plant transgenic maize, and in September of that year a
federal judge granted a precautionary ban on such authorisations.
Since March 2014, organisations of beekeepers and indigenous
communities have won two further provisional protection orders against
commercial transgenic soybean crops in the southeastern states of
Campeche and Yucatán.
On Apr. 30, 2014, eight scientists from six countries sent an open
letter to Pope Francis about the negative environmental, economic,
agricultural, cultural and social impacts of GM seeds, especially in
In their letter, the experts stated: “…we believe that it would be of
momentous importance and great value to all if Your Holiness were to
express yourself critically on GM crops and in support of peasant
farming. This support would go a long way toward saving peoples and
the planet from the threat posed by the control of life wielded by
companies that monopolise seeds, which are the key to the entire food
Laudato Si indicates that the pope did listen to their plea.
“The encyclical is very encouraging, because it has expressed an
ecological position,” Argelia Arriaga, a professor at the University
Centre for Disaster Prevention of the Autonomous University of Puebla,
told Tierramérica. “It touches sensitive fibers; the situation is
terrible and merits papal intervention. This gives us moral support to
continue the struggle.”
But legal action has failed to curb the biotech industry’s ambitions in Mexico.
In 2014, the National Service for Agri-Food Health, Safety and Quality
(SENASICA) received four applications from the biotech industry and
public research centres for experimental planting of maize on nearly
10 hectares of land.
In addition, there were 30 requests for pilot projects involving
experimental and commercial planting of GM cotton on a total of 1.18
million hectares – as well as one application for beans, five for
wheat, three for lemons and one for soy – all experimental.
SENASICA is also processing five biotech industry requests for
planting more than 200,000 hectares of GM cotton and alfalfa for
commercial and experimental purposes.
“This is an economic and development model that ignores food
production,” said Concha, the priest who heads the Fray Francisco de
Vitoria Human Rights Centre.
The participants in the collective lawsuit against GMOs, having
successfully gotten federal courts to throw out 22 stays brought by
the government and companies against the legal decision to temporarily
suspend permits for planting, are now getting ready for a trial that
will decide the future of transgenic crops in the country.
Arriaga noted that the focus of the encyclical goes beyond GM crops,
and extends to other environmental struggles. “For people in local
communities, the pope’s message is important, because it tells them
they have to take care of nature and natural resources. It helps raise
awareness,” the professor said.
This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that
are part of the Tierramérica network.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes