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from issue no. 06 - 2003

DIPLOMACY. The confidential discussions on the problem of the use of GM organisms in the Third World

For a fistful of biotech grain

Pressure from the US continues in the hope of convincing the Holy See to come out in favor of genetically modified foods. In the name of the fight against hunger. But also the control of the markets. The case of Zambia

by Gianni Cardinale

Zambian women carrying sacks of cereal distributed by the WFP Center, the World Food program, in Ngombe

Zambian women carrying sacks of cereal distributed by the WFP Center, the World Food program, in Ngombe

When on 2 June US Secretary of State Colin Powell was received in audience by the Pope, the discussion had to do not only with the situation in Iraq and the Holy Land, since George W. Bush’s close collaborator also wanted to deal with the controversial question of GM organisms. In the communique released by the Holy See no mention of this was made, but the subject of genetically modified organisms was briefly dealt with, at the request of the United States, also in the following meeting between the General himself and the heads of the Vatican Secretariat of State (Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran). The visit of Powell to the Vatican was therefore the culminating point of a diplomatic offensive promoted by Washington to involve the Vatican in what is seen in the US as a genuine moral question, a humanitarian battle to alleviate the problem of hunger in the world. An offensive which has not yet reached its desired goal, because the question is regarded with extreme caution in the Vatican.

The case of Zambia
The US diplomatic action began last summer, with the devastating famine which struck Zambia as its starting point. The Lusaka government refused to accept the genetically modified wheat produced by the United States which was also offered by the World Food Program. And it was encouraged in this attitude by the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection (JCTR), directed by the American Jesuit Pete Henriot, who had thoroughly researched the matter. For the JCTR the GM organisms should not be allowed into Zambia for a series of reasons (the studies on their non-toxic quality seem not to be reliable; a danger of sterility is alleged; they are also alleged to make the earth unsuitable for other crops; their employment would make countries dependent on the US ...) which are the classic ones used by opponents of biotech food. Reasons which sound like a pretext to the ears of the US State Department. In Washington then, on second thoughts, it was decided to hand the issue over to Ambassador Nicholson, who is also a convinced supporter of GMO ( in a recent convention he confessed that he had suffered hunger as a boy and hence his particular concern for the problem of hunger in the world).
US diplomacy lost no time. And so, exactly parallel with the fevered consultations about the looming Iraqi question, which took place between the Holy See and Washington, another no less intense series of verbal and written contacts got under way about Zambia. The discussions and messages have remained confidential until now but 30Days can now reveal their essential features.
US pressure
and Vatican caution
On the Zambian question there were, between mid September and the first days of December of last year, meetings in the Secretariat of State between Nicholson and the Vatican “Foreign Minister” Tauran, and also with his substitute (the “Minister of the Interior”), Archbishop Leonardo Sandri. Furthermore there was an exchange of letters between Powell and Tauran, between the number two at the Embassy, Brent Hardt, and the then Vice to Tauran, Monsignor Celestino Migliore (now an Observer at the UN Center in New York), as well as between Nicholson and the General of the Jesuits Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, in his capacity as ultimate superior of the JCTR in Lusaka.
The pressure was meant to obtain from the Holy See a “clear and unambiguous” statement which would affirm“the safety of biotech foods” in order to help dismiss the “hesitation widely diffused in Africa and beyond”. A public statement that would in some way neutralize the anti-GMO propaganda put about by the Jesuits in Africa, but also the negative stance expressed by some episcopates (such as that of South Africa in 2000) and by large sectors of the Catholic world in Africa and elsewhere. A statement which, however, is not yet forthcoming. Certainly, in the Vatican, the ideologically anti-GMO tones at times taken by environmentalist spheres world and lay and Catholic ONG are not acceptable, but there has been diplomatic caution about offering blessings to the champions of biotech.
The Holy See in its replies has always shown appreciation for the role of the United States in its humanitarian assistance to Africa. But at the same time it has made clear that it is not in a position to make assessments of single products or whether a country should or should not use this type of food. The Vatican has furthermore stated that there is no “absolute rejection” of biotech foods on its part but that it has to follow “the principle of precaution”, of the kind used for medicines, to avoid risks for human beings. The Holy See also sees it necessary that biotech foods, once on the market, should be identified as such by “appropriate label”. It was also clearly pointed out in the Vatican that the use of GMO in developing countries must respect “the principles of justice and solidarity with reference to commercial and economic questions”.
The Vatican replies did not fully satisfy the US demands. So General Powell took advantage of the audience granted to him on 2 June to raise the question again, speaking of it directly to John Paul II. And he did so with a joke, which Nicholson smilingly reported to Corriere della Sera. In making his case Powell, in fact, proposed himself as a testimonial for biotech, saying to the Pope: “Look at me, sir. I eat genetetically modified products every day and, all in all, I’m not doing too badly, am I?”.

in Sacramento
Will Powell’s joke have some effect? An answer may come by the end of the month. For 23-25 June a ministerial conference and expo on agricultural science and technology is planned to take place in Sacramento, California. It is organized by the US Department of Agriculture and sponsored by the Department of State. For the Vatican, Archbishop Renato Raffaele Martino, President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, has been invited. A choice that might seem paradoxical, seeing that the prelate from Campania was among the most outspoken members of the Roman Curia in his criticism of Washington’s politics in the course of the recent war in Iraq. In reality it is to be remembered that in his first press conference as Vatican Head of Department, on 17 December of last year, Monsignor Martini made a sort of defense of GMO: “Look at me”, he confided, “I’m in good health, at least I think so. I was in the United States for 16 years (as Permanent Observer to the UN, ed.) and I ate everything on the local markets, including GMO food. Up to now I’ve had no undesirable effects”. Words not too different from Powell’s in the presence of the Holy Father. In Sacramento, however, Martino will not present his own personal positions but those of the Holy See. On that occasion we may perhaps see whether the words of Powell to the Pope have achieved any result. Or, as seems more likely, whether the Holy See continues to maintain that it is not yet opportune to adopt an official, “clear and unambiguous” position in favor of GMO.

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