Critics of genetically modified (GM) foods are warning that a Vatican endorsement of biotech products would be a mistake, while supporters say the Vatican is wisely gathering evidence to make an informed decision about the issue.
Participants at a two-day Vatican conference on biotech foods also questioned whether the Vatican would get a balanced view, since speakers in the pro-biotech camp dominated the discussions, reflecting the views of its organizer, Cardinal Renato Martino.
Martino, who has spoken out frequently about the potential benefits of the technology, opened the conference titled GMO: Threat or Hope by acknowledging it could have far-reaching implications.
"We are fully aware that the stakes are high and delicate," he said, citing the divide in public opinion, commercial interests and ethical questions involved, as well as "the difficulty in defining scientifically a material that is subject to evolving research."
A Vatican endorsement of biotech foods would likely draw praise from the US, where biotech companies have been at the forefront of extolling the virtues of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which can be made to resist insects or disease.
But it would no doubt ruffle feathers in Europe, which has imposed a moratorium on growing or importing GMOs because of fears about the environmental and heath risks, and in African countries such as Zambia, which has rejected biotech food aid.
Greenpeace science adviser Doreen Stabinsky said in an interview Monday that she was dismayed that the Vatican was hearing a largely one-sided debate at the conference, and that it would be a mistake to draw final conclusions from it.
"We would hope that the Vatican takes a very slow and measured evaluation of GM," she said. "Based on the people that are up in the room right now, I wouldn't say are consulting widely at this point."
Greenpeace opposes GM crops on the grounds that the long-term ecological and human health consequences remain unknown.
Yet Thandiwe Myeni, a small-scale South African farmer and chairwoman of the Mbuso Farmers' Association, said her experience with GM cotton had been only positive. While the GM seeds cost more than regular ones, she saves money by not having to use so much pesticide and has harvested bigger crops.
"We need this technology," she told a press conference after she spoke to the symposium. "We don't want always to be fed food aid .... We want access to this technology so that one day we can also become commercial farmers."
Italy's agriculture minister, Gianni Alemanno, praised the Vatican for taking the initiative to gather expert advice on the important issue, and said he expected Martino would make a "prudent judgment."
Martino said the Vatican's aim was to find some common ground for the benefit of all of mankind, particularly the poor.
The issue of poverty and hunger is a major concern for the Vatican, which rejects arguments that limiting family size by using contraception is one way to improve the developing world's food security.
Margaret Mellon, a speaker at the symposium and a director of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said she is concerned the claims that biotechnology will ease world hunger are overblown and that any benefits may not outweigh the risks.
Nam-Hai Chua, head of Rockefeller University's plant molecular biology laboratory, acknowledged that the technology may not be perfect, but that it deserves to be worked on since to date GM foods have been found to be safe.