There are some people around the world who think religion and science shouldn't get along. For some reason, they believe the men of the cloth should disagree with the men of the lab coat, now and forever.
They’ll be disappointed to learn that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences--an arm of the Vatican--has given its blessing to genetically modified crops. At a conference last month in Rome, it praised GM food for holding “a great potential to improve the lives of the poor.”
This is a welcome marriage of religion and science--two powerful forces joining for the good of all.
That’s certainly how I view it, as a Roman Catholic farmer in North Dakota. Growing up, I served as an altar boy and learned the Mass in Latin. Today, I read scripture, as a proclaimer, from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
When I’m in the fields, planting seeds or harvesting crops, I’m in the business of nourishing bodies. When at church, we nourish spirits--my own and those of my family, friends, and others. Everybody needs both forms of sustenance.
Farming is my profession. But it’s more than a job--it’s a vocation. The Catholic Church teaches us to show benevolence toward the poor, and to feed them when they are hungry. One of the best ways I can realize this goal is to grow as much food as possible and to make it available at the most reasonable prices. I believe it is important that all farmers, especially the resource-poor smallholders, have the right to choose the best technology available, including biotechnology when appropriate, to improve their hope of producing more food for themselves.
Biotechnology allows farmers to do well and do good at the same time. It has certainly made it easier for me to earn a living, because GM seeds reduce the amount of time and resources I devote to each acre of crops. Simultaneously, it has allowed farmers to grow more food than ever before. If farmers are going to feed a booming global population, we’re all going to have to get a lot more out of our existing farmland.
Farmers have an economic incentive to meet this challenge--and we also have a moral obligation. The story of Genesis teaches that our Creator had endowed us with gifts. One of them is our dominion over plants and animals. We must utilize this resource but not waste it, in order to take care of ourselves as well as the less fortunate. Our intellect--another one of our great gifts--lets us come up with creative solutions for achieving this objective. One of the best recent solutions is agricultural biotechnology.
The Pontifical Academy’s embrace of biotechnology doesn’t carry the full weight of an official church teaching, but it’s instructive. At a time when many of the Vatican’s European neighbors are turning their backs on biotechnology, and strangling innovation with the red tape of bureaucracy, the academy’s position is a model of common sense.
Are GM foods dangerous, as so many Europeans have been told? “No substantiated environmental or health risks have been noted,” says the academy. “Opposition to biotechnology in agriculture is usually ideological.”
Don’t we have to make sure GM foods are carefully regulated? Yes, but the current threat doesn’t come from under-regulation. It comes from over-regulation: “The huge potential of plant biotechnology to produce more, and more nutritive, food for the poor will be lost if GMO-regulation is not changed from being driven by ‘extreme precaution’ principles to being driven by ‘science-based’ principles.”
This is not the academy’s first foray into the politics and science of agricultural biotechnology. In recent years, it has issued a series of favorable statements about GM foods. The occasion for this latest utterance was a conference organized by German scientist Ingo Potrykus, the inventor of golden rice--a GM crop that contains extra vitamins that people in the developing world often lack.
Critics of the Catholic Church often accuse it of hostility toward science--a claim they’ve been making since the days of Galileo, if not earlier. They will have trouble squaring this prejudice with the facts of today, as the Pontifical Academy shows how a faith can use the scientific tool of biotechnology to reach the religious aim of feeding the poor.
This is more than a positive example. It’s an inspiration.
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)