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Feature: Genetic Engineering is a life issue

 The Catholic Church has been slow to wake up to the crucial questions posed by the introduction of genetically modified crops. Genetic engineering in crop terms has tended to drift in with the environmental agenda which has not been given the same high level of priority as life issues. The truth is that the church has been negligent in its failure to promote environmental issues to the top of its agenda. As Christians we have been charged by God for stewardship of the earth. Environmental and life issues are not mutually exclusive, they are two sides of the same coin. Genetic engineering in simple terms is man's attempt to control creation. The Holy Father recently succinctly highlighted the dangers when he referred to man's "genetic abuse of life." The Pope declared that man "claims for himself a Creator's right to interfere in the mystery of human life. He wishes to determine human life through genetic manipulation and to establish the limits of death." He "frequently lives as if God does not exist and even puts himself in God's place." The big problem with genetically engineered organisms is that man is literally playing God. Companies have developed genetically modified seed and put them on the market without really testing what the consequences will be for human life in the longer term. Fr Sean McDonagh, a Columban father who worked in the Philippines for 20 years, points to the dangers of bacterium thuringiensis (BT) which puts pesticide into the seed of the plant and so reduces the need to spray. Though in widespread use BT has never been independently tested for the effect it has on the gut wall of mammals. Fr McDonagh highlights the increase in allergies among children and the growing incidence of antibiotics resistance as possible effects of the manipulation of food chain over recent years. One scientist who did make a link between genetic engineering and creation was Dr Arpad Pusztai. He showed that rats fed on genetically modified potatoes had suffered significant damage to their vital organs. Dr Pusztai believed that the cauliflower mosaic promoter used in the experiment might be the cause of the harm. Dr Pusztai was forced to take early retirement for his troubles. The GM companies have developed what is known as the terminator gene. This gene means that once the seed has produced a crop then rather than reproduce itself in the natural God given way the seed dies. If ever there were a life issue then surely this is it - stopping the most basic reproduction of human life for profit driven commercial purposes. The desire to force GM crops on the rest of the world is largely being driven by a small number of large US companies. These organisations operate in commercial markets and rely on a quick return in order to keep their share prices buoyant. This mode of operating does not always work to the benefits of testing and public safety. "There is nothing wrong with seeking profit. However it is important to realise that biotechnology is different from any other enterprise, because it has the power to transform life itself. Because of the potential pitfalls the future of biotechnology should not be dictated by the commercial interest of companies like Monsanto, but by concern for the welfare of people and the planet," said Fr McDonagh. Some 80 per cent of corn in the US is already genetically modified. The next great trade battle between the US and Europe is looming over the issue of GM foods. The US government wants to force these products on European governments which in the main want nothing to do with them. Scarred by the effects of the mad cow disease, BSE, European countries do not want to become part of the growing world laboratory for the testing of GM products. The public relations justification for GM crops is that they equal progress and will be able to solve problems of world famine. This may be true but it is a false argument given that there is enough food to feed the world now it is just the inequitable methods of distribution that are the problem. Given that the motivating force for the six to 10 transnational companies driving the GM agenda is control of the food chain and profit flowing there from it is difficult to believe that the alleviation of world famine registers high on their list of priorities. Indeed, the future profits of these companies are likely to be dependent upon their individual ability to corner the market thereby ensuring price control. Shortages will thus again be the main way to ensure sustainable profit streams. Most recently we have seen GM crops effectively being forced on many parts of Africa as a way to alleviate famine. Zambia is the one government in Africa that is refusing to allow genetically modified maize from the US to be distributed amongst its people. The Jesuits have strongly urged the Zambian government to reject the GM maize offer. "Our concern was and is based on principles of the church's social teaching such as emphasis on basic human rights, an option for the poor, the economy serving the people, participation in decision making, etc.," said Peter Henriot, director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection. "Our recommendation to Government to turn down the USA offer is based on our scientific study, which concludes that the acceptance of GMO "relief" maize raises the clear and present danger of introducing GMOs into our agricultural system, with consequences for small-scale farmers ability to maintain their contribution to Zambia's food security, destruction of organic farming capabilities, and loss of European markets." The South African Bishops Conference has also come out against GM crops but much of the rest of the Catholic Church remains silent. The worry of course must be that if there is a problem with GM crops and it is not discovered until later then the position will not be recoverable. A few token businessmen may be walked off to jail but the genie, so to speak, will be out of the bottle. The problem will be blowing in the breeze, cross pollinating, being picked up by wild animals and getting into the natural system. When man plays with nature and makes a mistake there is no recovering the position - it is not like a faulty part in a car which can be recalled at any time. Once a dangerous organism is released into the environment then man will be forced to live with the consequences. Fr McDonagh believes that there needs to be an independent means developed under the UN to monitor the introduction of these life type technologies. "A new body needs to be established that is independent and has serious funding so that it can conduct research and adjudicate on matters like patents and GM technologies," said Fr McDonagh. For the final word on the subject of GM technologies it is wise to turn once again to the Holy Father. "The recent developments in the field of genetic engineering present a profoundly disquieting challenge. In order that scientific research in this area may be at the service of the person, it must be accompanied at every stage by careful ethical reflection, which will bring adequate legal norms safeguarding the integrity of human life. Life can never be downgraded to the level of a thing". This article was first published in the Universe (29/9/2002)