Navigating GMOs and Agro-ecology: Finding the Catholic Voice

By Kelly Moltzen

Dietician and FAN Board Member

Kelly Moltzen

I was given the opportunity to provide input into an article about religious responses to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Vice News, specifically to provide input from a Catholic perspective. However, as I do not feel my quote in the article did the topic justice, I would like to expand on the issues at hand and explore what a particularly Catholic perspective may look like.

My approach to Catholicism largely lies in the charism and spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was man who felt deeply connected with the Earth, all humankind, and other creatures. He saw himself as a little brother to all. He most certainly would have cared about finding a way to grow food that was in right relationship with the Earth while ensuring that everyone would be nourished, healthy, and not hungry. Therefore I do not think he would have been in support of genetically engineered (GE) foods, especially the way it is commodified today.

Genetically modifying the DNA of crops indicates a lack of trust in the natural ecosystem to provide us with the food we need to survive, and therefore a lack of trust in God. Modifying the blueprints of life and patenting and monopolizing seeds flies in the face of the wisdom found in Psalm 24 that “the Earth is God’s and the fullness contained therein.”

Further, the failure to trust in the ecosystem’s ability to maintain itself leads to a reliance on growing methods that produce negative health and environmental impacts. The industry creates monocultures of GE crops that perpetuate dependence on artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other agrochemicals which pollute waterways, disrupt ecosystems and harm human health. One of the clearest examples is that crops which have been genetically engineered to be tolerant to herbicides have become the most common type of GE crop around the world, resulting in an increased use of herbicides – specifically glyphosate – which has been linked to birth defects and child cancer and has been declared a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization.

While sustainable alternative means of growing food exist, including the more traditional means of cross-breeding and even marker assisted breeding, they are not ordinarily promoted in the media because GE crop patents are a lucrative business and so much money is put into promoting chemically-intensive agriculture. A telling story is that when the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology (IAASTD) was being put together by 400 scientists and other experts worldwide, industry stakeholders backed out of participating when they learned that the report would warn about safety concerns and in general not provide much support for transgenic crops. Further, respected scientific media outlets suspiciously went on to critique the IAASTD report’s scientific validity, thereby stunting the potential of the report and its findings to reach the broader scientific and agricultural communities.

As a Franciscan-hearted Catholic and member of the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, I have come to a deep understanding that agroecological methods of growing food – where the science and practice of ecology are applied to agriculture – are the best way for us to live in harmony with the Earth and reduce hunger worldwide. The Rodale Institute’s farming systems trial – the “longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture” – has found that “organic farming is better equipped to feed us now and well into the ever changing future.” In addition, Father Henri de Laulanie in Madagascar worked with researchers more than 30 years ago to develop the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a method which has been shown to simultaneously increase yields and improve climate resilience. SRI was given an international food security award at the global Climate Smart Agriculture conference in March 2015. Adopting climate-friendly growing practices to combat climate change, droughts, floods, and hunger is becoming increasingly critical – recognized by both scientists and large faith-based organizations like Bread for the World.

With the Franciscan goals of promoting and supporting justice, peace and integrity of creation, it seems that a Catholic and Franciscan means of growing food would be one that supports agroecology and regenerative organic agriculture, which has the potential to sequester 100% of current, annual carbon dioxide emissions if it were practiced globally.[1]

This, I believe (and hope), is the direction we will see Pope Francis’s stance on agriculture take in his upcoming encyclical on the environment, which is taking its name from St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures – Laudato Sii, or “Praised Be.” The Canticle of the Creatures expresses praise to God for “Sister Moon,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire, and “Mother Earth.” There is a seeming alignment between the harmony with the Earth preached by St. Francis and the agroecological methods that the global scientific community largely agrees are necessary for restoring the integrity of the Earth and reducing hunger.

To move towards a more ecological approach to growing food and climate-smart agriculture will entail a need for us to individually and collectively commit to taking a more introspective look at our eating habits and the impacts of our food choices on the global community. This can include recognizing the benefits of organic farming, crop rotation, diversity, and seeking out crops more attuned to location conditions, as well as a commitment by consumers to adopt practices such as eating less meat, due to the massive impact that animal agriculture has on the environment.

We can practice mindfulness and think about our deep interconnectedness and Oneness with the Earth and one another, considering the toxicity of the agrochemicals used to produce the food we choose, and the health and environmental impacts of the growing practices on the workers and the ecosystem. We may also wish to keep in mind the heavy lobbying power of the corporations pushing the industrial food model, littered with GE products and toxic agrochemicals, for the Bible is clear that we cannot serve both God and money. Monsanto spent over $4 million lobbying in 2014 and has given over $759,000 in contributions to political candidates, party committees and other political action committees (OpenSecrets.org).

If we mindfully consider our food choices each time we eat and allow ourselves a continuous process of spiritual growth, we can indeed work to change the food system so that it honors God and promotes justice, peace, and integrity of creation. It will be hard work, but what choice do we have? As Pope Francis said on Earth Day 2015, “We need to care for the earth so that it may continue, as God willed, to be a source of life for the entire human family.”

[1] Rodale Institute (2014). Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming.

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Published in: on June 15, 2015 at 11:24 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. FYI

    From a fellow FAN Board member. >


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