A Scientist’s Week at the Vatican

By | 2019-05-09T14:57:50-07:00 May 9th, 2019|
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Ten years ago this month, I had the experience of a lifetime. I was one of a small group of scholars from around the world who were convened by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences for a “study week.” Our subject was “Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development.” As directed by Pope Benedict XVI, its purpose was “to evaluate benefits and risks of genetic engineering [GE] and of other agricultural practices on the basis of present scientific knowledge and of its potential for applications to improve food security and human welfare worldwide in the context of a sustainable development.”

The week was beyond fascinating. At the initial session, we participants were greeted by a cardinal who had spent decades in Rome, most recently as the Vatican’s official theologian. He was exceedingly warm and charming, and stressed the importance of technological advances to the poorest and most vulnerable populations. When I googled him, I had a shock: His most recent academic paper had been the introductory chapter in a book on exorcism. Clearly, I was outside my customary science-suffused bubble!

One evening toward to the end of the week, my girlfriend and I ventured outside the Vatican walls for dinner (we were housed—in separate single rooms—in the dormitory-like residence where cardinals and other visiting dignitaries stay). When we returned, we found that the gate through which we had exited was locked. We walked for a long way around the perimeter of the Vatican’s walls, looking for an open gate, and finally encountered a priest who offered to take us to the appropriate entrance. (It turned out that he was a bishop and the head of Catholic Charities worldwide.) When we arrived at our destination, I thanked him and apologized for the detour. He smiled and said, “You’re most welcome, my son; it’s a privilege to assist a pilgrim who has lost his way.” I felt like a bit-player in one of those old films in which Spencer Tracy and Bing Crosby played priests.

The result of the conference was, especially for the time, a rare, constructive melding of science, technology, religion, and humanistic principles. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ summary document included these salient conclusions (quoted verbatim):

  • GE [genetic engineering] technology, used appropriately and responsibly, can in many circumstances make essential contributions to agricultural productivity by crop improvement, including enhancing crop yields and nutritional quality, and increasing resistance to pests, as well as improving tolerance to drought and other forms of environmental stress. These improvements are needed around the world to help improve the sustainability and productivity of agriculture.
  • The genetic improvement of crop and ornamental plants represents a long and seamless continuum of progressively more precise and predictable techniques. As the U.S. National Research Council concluded in a 1989 report: “As the molecular methods are more specific, users of these methods will be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants and hence less liable to produce untoward effects than other methods of plant breeding.”
  • They also can be of major significance for resource-poor farmers and vulnerable members of poor farming communities, especially women and children. Insect-resistant GE cotton and maize, in particular, have greatly reduced insecticide use (and hence enhanced farm safety) and contributed to substantially higher yields, higher household income and lower poverty rates (and also fewer poisonings with chemical pesticides).
  • The introduction of resistance to environmentally benign, inexpensive herbicides in maize, soybean, canola, and other crops is the most widely used GE trait. It has increased yields per hectare, replaced back-breaking manual weeding, and has facilitated lower input resulting in minimum tillage (no till) techniques that have lowered the rate of soil erosion.
  • GE technology can combat nutritional deficiencies through modification that provides essential micro-nutrients. For example, studies of provitamin A-biofortified “Golden Rice” have shown that standard daily diets containing this biofortified rice would be sufficient to prevent vitamin A deficiency.
  • The application of GE technology to insect resistance has led to a reduction in the use of chemical insecticides, lowering the cost of some agricultural inputs and improving the health of agricultural workers.
  • GE technology has already raised crop yields of poor farmers and there is evidence of its generating increased income and employment that would not otherwise have taken place.
  • Costly regulatory oversight of GE technology needs to become scientifically defensible and risk-based. This means that regulation should be based upon the particular traits of a new plant variety rather than the technological means used to produce it. Risk assessments must consider not only the potential risks of the use of a new plant variety, but also the risks of alternatives if that particular variety is not made available.
  • Given these scientific findings, there is a moral imperative to make the benefits of GE technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments.

The recommendations in the Pontifical Academy’s summary statement were equally constructive and important. For example, policymakers worldwide should, “[s]tandardize—and rationalize—the principles involved in the evaluation and approval of new crop varieties (whether produced by so-called conventional, marker assisted breeding, or GE technologies) universally so that they are scientific, risk-based, predictable and transparent.”

The recommendations further clarified, “It is critical that the scope of what is subject to case-by-case review is as important as the actual review itself; it must also be scientific and risk-based.”

If those conclusions and recommendation had been incorporated into public policy over the past decade by legislators and regulators around the world, the contributions of genetic engineering to agriculture, especially in poorer countries, would have been far greater.

That would have been a miracle.

Photo Credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author:

Henry I. Miller
Henry Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.