An open letter to the Most Reverend Renato Martino and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, regarding the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture,
from Robert Waldrop, of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker Community in Oklahoma City, on the 12th day of November, 2003
Dear Archbishop Martino:
We have heard through the news media that there was a meeting at the Vatican this week to consider the issue of using genetically modified organisms in agriculture. You have been quoted in the press as saying that you hoped that the meeting could find some sort of "compromise" that would benefit the poor.
Is it possible to find a "compromise" regarding the issue of abortion that would be morally licit because it "benefitted the poor"?
No it is not, because abortion is of course always an objectively evil act.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the same is true about oppression of the poor by the rich.
Therefore, the first point I wish to make is that a compromise regarding GMOs would not benefit the poor, but would actually increase their oppression and food insecurity.
If we wish to solve a problem, we must be careful in diagnosing the cause of the problem. If we mis-diagnose the illness, then we are in danger of prescribing the wrong treatment. Thus, regarding the question "How do we solve the problem of world hunger?", the real problem with present food insecurity is not the physical supply of food, but rather issues of politics, economics, access to energy and technology, justice, and distribution. Among many references which could be cited, the works of the Indian economist Dr. Amartya Sen provide conclusive proof of the essentially political and economic nature of hunger in the modern world. It will not help the poor if we embrace false solutions based on defective analyses of why people are hungry in this bountiful world.
The premise of the "GMO will help the poor" argument is that people are hungry because not enough food is being produced. This premise is demonstrably false. Since its premise is not true, the conclusion, "we must approve GMO experiments to help the poor", is equally false.
In fact, a turn towards GMOs in agriculture may have the perverse effect of discouraging effective action to help the poor. It will give an illusion that we are doing something real about world hunger, when in fact all we would be doing is adding to the burdens by the poorest of the poor throughout the world. The Catholic Church should not get involved with proposals from international corporations whose net impact is going to be more oppression for the poor. Our vocation is to stand with and be one in solidarity with the poor, not to seek "compromises" with their oppressors.
How would GMOs increase the food insecurity of the poor in the modern world?
Much has been made of the success of the Green Revolution, but we rarely consider what its true costs have been. Throughout the world, traditional methods which had been sustainable for generations have been replaced by fossil fuel powered mechanized agriculture. Land ownership has been increasingly centralized in the hands of a few, leaving multitudes without secure tenure to land on which to live and grow food for their families.
Widespread deployment of GMOs in developed agricultural economies will boost total production, this is true, for a while anyway. The long term viability of such organisms has yet to be established.. This subsidy for overproduction will drive down market prices, and will probably be the final straw that breaks the back of the small family farmer in the United States and the poor subsistence farmer in the developing world. Land will become even more centralized, and there will be even more landless and hungry people than there are now. Food is already cheap, and yet the poor don't have the money to buy it, that is why they are hungry. There is plenty of food in the world, but our systems of distribution are unjust. If food becomes even cheaper, it won't matter to the poorest of the poor worldwide because they still won't have the money to buy food even at its new and cheaper prices. The same unjust domestic and international economic structures will ensure that they remain hungry even in the face of mountains of food.
Some of the most food insecure people in this world are small subsistence farmers. For generations they have made their living by growing most of their own food and a small surplus to sell for the money necessary for their lives. When commodity prices collapse, their lives often become untenable and they lose their lands to banks and moneylenders. This same process, on a larger scale, is also at work throughout farm country in the United States. Since the 1950s, the theme has been, "Get big or get out," and as a result rural America is increasingly populated by ghost towns.
Genetically modified organisms are simply the latest product "Profit Center" deployed by the international agricultural corporations that dominate world and regional food trades. It will make farmers throughout the world more dependent upon international corporations, and their farming operations less sustainable. The international food distribution system is largely a creation of these giant corporations, so they have a share in the responsibility for these structures of sin that keep people hungry.
GMOs will force even more world farmers into the high fossil fuel requirement mechanized agriculture model favored by the social and cultural darwinists of this era. This poses a problem for world food security in the near and short term, as it can be fairly said that the primary food in the modern world is petroleum. Depending on the food, it is variously estimated that in the United States, every calorie of food embodies seven to twelve calories of fossil fuel energy. Most fertilizers used in "Green Revolution" crops are made from fossil fuels.
World consumption of fossil fuels is ballooning, but world production of fossil fuels is starting to fall behind. There are many who believe that a peak in global oil production is nearing, and that perhaps in ten years or so world petroleum production will begin to decline. This prediction comes from senior petroleum geologists such as Dr. Jean Laherre of France and Dr. Colin Campbell of Ireland.
If this is true, the potential for catastrophe is clear. If we continue to demand that farmers in the developing world abandon traditional, sustainable, and organic methods of food production in favor of fossil fuel dependent mechanized GMO agriculture, as fossil fuel energy becomes more scarce and thus more expensive, their costs will increase, and it is likely that their production will decline and potentially collapse leading to true famines caused not by politics or problems with distribution but on actual scarcities of food..
If we want to help the hungry poor of this world, we must therefore continue to create structures of justice and peace to replace the failing structures of economic and political sin that are characteristic of the culture of death. We should not let ourselves get distracted by false claims about the cause and the solution of the world hunger problem. We must demand accountability from political and economic leaders for their actions that negatively impact the poor, and as Archbishop Oscar Romero did, we must forbid Christians from involvement with the oppression of the poor.
We could, and should, share with the poor the advances and developments in sustainable and organic agriculture that are gifts that we can bring to the table. These gifts have the virtue of being able to empower the poor to participate fully and completely in their own lives. It can be easily demonstrated that over time, land that is farmed using natural, sustainable, and organic methods will outproduce land that is farmed by conventional fossil-fuel dependent agro-chemical mechanical methods. We should not impose upon the poor a GMO agriculture regime whose only purpose is to benefit the wealthy and powerful owners of giant transnational agricultural corporations.
GMOs are also a threat to biological diversity, which is already under severe attack. In the last one hundred years, literally thousands of varieties of cultivated heirloom crops, fruits, and vegetables have become extinct. Many of these varieties were developed over long periods of time using natural methods by farmers to meet specific conditions. There are a precious inheritance from our ancestors, but as is so typical with the modern world, the gifts of our ancestors are scorned by the boosters of the social Darwinist system of globalization which imposes a mass culture of death upon the entire planet.
These international agribizness corporations would further support that biological holocaust by subtly manipulating structures of economics and politics to encourage farmers to abandon their traditional seed varieties and sources in favor of genetically manipulated seeds which must be bought from giant corporations.
In closing, I would say a few words about why I have written you this letter.
I am the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker community, a lay apostolate in the American Catholic Worker tradition, which itself was founded by the Servants of God Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Our particular work is food security. We deliver food to people in need who don't have transportation to get to a regular food bank. We feed homeless people in downtown Oklahoma City. We do other works of justice and peace, as need, opportunity and resources permit. We also encourage home production of food and actively work to create local food systems. More information about our community is available on the internet at www.justpeace.org . I am also an Oklahoma County Extension Department Master Gardener, and the president of the recently organized Oklahoma Food Cooperative, whose purpose is to provide a marketplace where urban customers can buy food directly from rural farmers and ranchers. More information about our cooperative is available on the internet at www.oklahomafood.org ..
We come to you, not as the voice of those with power and wealth, but rather representing our lay community of Catholic Workers. We are neither rich nor powerful, but we love the poor and always seek to be in solidarity with them, and to live in a way that does not increase injustice or oppression in this world.
We will pray that Saints Isidore and Maria, patrons of all who work the soil, and St. Joseph, patron of the poor and all who come to their assistance, will watch carefully over you and guide you to make the right decisions in light of both the sacred teachings of the Catholic Church and the signs of these times which we see all around us. Before we act, we must see and judge, and as you carry this burden, we will pray for you.
Do not doubt that the situation of the poor is increasingly grave, there is a holocaust of injustice in this world, and the poor are paying the worst price of all. The rich of the modern world daily offer up the lives of the poor as idolatrous sacrifices to their false gods of money, gluttony, and conspicuous consumption. Let us therefore not add any more to the burdens of the poor by giving the rich one more weapon to use against those poor who are loved in a special way by Christ, who indeed are the Christ who comes among us in "distressing disguises," as the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta has taught us.
Your brother in the Lord,
Robert M. Waldrop
1524 NW 21st Street
Oklahoma :City, Oklahoma 73106
United States of America
www.justpeace.org - Access to Catholic social justice teachings
www.bettertimesinfo.org - Access to sustainable, simple, and frugal living resources
www.energyconservationinfo.org - Access to energy issues and conservation tactics
www.oklahomafood.org - the Oklahoma Food Cooperative
Sent by email and fax, Fax 69.88.72.05
Posted on the internet at http://www.oklahomafood.org/martino.htm