GMOs - Caution
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 2002

During the last North Dakota legislative session, some legislators introduced a bill that would have placed a moratorium on the introduction of genetically modified wheat in the state. The bill received national -- indeed, international -- attention, but did not pass in its original form. The issue is sure to come up again and is being studied further by an interim committee. North Dakotans, legislators, and farm organizations, therefore, should consider a statement on agricultural biotechnology just approved by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

The statement,
Agricultural Biotechnology: A Catholic Perspective, examines genetically engineered crops from an ethical and moral perspective. Although North Dakota’s legislators have rarely, if ever, considered this perspective, it is the proper place to start. Citing the Catholic Catechism, the statement starts by noting that all science and technology requires unconditional respect for moral criteria, must serve the human person, and conform with the plan and will of God.

Being in conformity with the plan and will of God means that all agricultural technology must respect the integrity of God’s creation, serve the entire community, rather than the few, and above all respect the life and dignity of the human person. When the development and use of genetically engineered crops is examined from these principles, several questions arise that have not been answered and several concerns arise that have not been addressed.

Accordingly, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, which works closely with the U.S. Bishops and the Holy See, is calling for a moratorium on the commercial introduction of genetically engineered crops until a principled food policy is developed through public debate.

Under such a policy, genetically engineered crops should not be commercially available unless:

•Independent, peer-reviewed assessment demonstrates that a genetically modified organism has no harmful effects on human health or the environment;

•Foods with genetically engineered ingredients are labeled for the consumer’s right to know.

•Patent law is limited to technical processes and does not include the patenting of genes, gene sequences, or genetically engineered species; and

•Producers of non-genetically engineered crops are protected from contamination, and unfair marketing practices favoring genetically engineered crops.

Each of these positions are based on moral criteria clearly set forth in Catholic social teaching, such as the fostering of the common good, respect for the integrity of creation, respect for human life and dignity, and economic liberty. Perhaps the principle of Catholic teaching most relevant is the universal destination of goods. Since the goods of the earth are meant for the benefit and availability of all, so are its genetic resources. No corporation, individual, or government should own the seeds of life or an imbalanced portion of the earth’s resources.

At the heart of the issue is whether our technology reflects the will of God or whether humans are substituting their own will. In this respect the areas human biotechnology and agricultural biotechnology are similar. In both realms, there is great danger that the excessive desire for efficiency, greater profits, and the removal of limitations on humanity, will lead us to a world where our will, not God’s, is done. Sadly, like so many things that sneak up on us under the guise of making life better, without vigilance, we may not realize in this life who’s will was actually done.