As the Christmas season is celebrated around the world the wish for “peace on earth” is expressed by many. As I hear these words repeated, it brings to mind a comment made by Dr. Norman Borlaug when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”
We can’t hear this message enough—especially in Europe, the home of a nonstop war on biotechnology.
One of my top moments of the year came when Cardinal Peter Turkson spoke at the World Food Prize in October. As a Catholic and Portuguese farmer who was in the audience, I was thrilled to hear a prominent leader of my church speak so favorably about genetically modified food.
My appreciation for his words only has grown since then—and they seem especially fitting now, as we celebrate Christmas and pray for peace on earth.
Cardinal Turkson heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, an arm of the Vatican that promotes Catholic social thought, dignity and action.
The Cardinal avoided the nitty-gritty details of the debate over GM food, but he made clear that the Roman Catholic Church fully supports the use of biotechnology in agriculture as one of the best ways to fight hunger, which Pope John Paul II called “the first and fundamental form of poverty.”
Cardinal Turkson included many references of comments made by Pope John Paul II, who spoke as early as 1982 about the advantages of “the new techniques of modification of the genetic code” and “the formation of new vegetal species for the benefit of all.”
Five years later, the pope elaborated: “The findings of science must be put to use in order to ensure a high productivity of land in such a way that the local population can secure food and sustenance without destroying nature.” Finally, in 1990, he referred to how “other plants possess value as sources of food or as a means of genetically improving strains of edible plants.”
More recently, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences has given its blessing to GM crops, praising GM food for its “great potential to improve the lives of the poor.
Cardinal Turkson continued in this tradition. He praised Borlaug for launching the Green Revolution and lauded the three winners of the 2013 World Food Prize for their role in the Gene Revolution: “We have reason today to congratulate … and to commend them for carrying on the legacy of Dr. Borlaug, putting biotechnology and research towards improving food production.”
Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Earlier this month, an EU court assaulted modern food production again when it revoked an earlier decision to permit the planting of a perfectly safe GM potato. The Cardinal mentioned the strong opposition to GM crops: “Never before, having accepted an invitation, have I received so much mail, some of it urging me to withdraw.”
Yet Cardinal Turkson refused to withdraw. He traveled to Des Moines and delivered his remarks, calling for conversation between the friends and foes of biotechnology. “May I cite my own African experience of ‘palaver’?” asked the native of Ghana. “Palaver is the extremely patient and thorough exploration of a whole problem until one reaches a consensus. … All the stakeholders must be represented around the palaver circle—a circle characterized by humble and respectful listening, honest speaking, reconciliation of deep differences—a circle of true collaboration.”
Let’s pledge that 2014 become a year of palaver—and hope that the critics of biotechnology at last come to understand that farmers and consumers must have this tool of science and agriculture.
“The world needs everyone,” said Turkson, “to stay at the table and solve these issues, rather than abandon the dialogue and leave the world’s poor at an empty table.”
These words carry special weight because so many people look to the Vatican for moral leadership. Catholics certainly do, but so do many non-Catholics—and we were reminded of this important fact when Time magazine selected Pope Francis as its Person of the Year. “In a very short time, a vast, global, ecumenical audience has shown a hunger to follow him,” wrote Nancy Gibbs, the managing editor.
I am hopeful that this global audience will be open to collaboration and follow the Roman Catholic Church’s lead on biotechnology. Eliminating hunger as we work for peace is a worthy goal.
Maria Gabriela Cruz manages a 500 hectare farm in Elvas, Portugal that has been in their family for over 100 years. Growing maize, wheat, barley and green peas, they use no-till or reduced till methods on the full farm. She has grown biotech maize since 2006. Ms. Cruz is President of the Portuguese Association of Conservation Agriculture, a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and the 2010 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient (www.truthabouttrade.org).