Cablegate: Vatican: Looking Ahead On Biotech

Published: Fri 26 Aug 2005 07:07 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L VATICAN 000514
E.O. 12958: DECL: 8/26/2015
REF: A. A) ROME 2543,
B. 05 ROME 2543, 03 VAT 4859; 03 ROME 5205; 04 VAT 3810
CLASSIFIED BY: Peter Martin, Political Officer, POL, STATE.
REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)
1. (C) Recent conversations between Holy See officials and
USAID and EB representatives visiting the Vatican confirmed the
cautious acceptance of biotech food by the Holy See. Vatican
officials asserted that the safety and science of genetically
modified foods would eventually be non-issues at the Holy See.
Preoccupation at the Vatican, they said, was tied more to
economic arguments, as some fear that widespread use of GMO food
in the developing world would subjugate its farmer population
and become a form of economic imperialism simply serving to
enrich multi-national corporations. There remains vocal
opposition among some Catholic laypeople and clergy to biotech
food, and signs are not strong that the papacy or other Vatican
entities with which Post has worked are ready to issue a
stronger endorsement of these technologies. However, by
focusing on the economic benefits of GMO food for
developing-world farmers, safeguards in place to prevent
economic exploitation, and ongoing research on non-cash crops
such as cassava, Post will continue to engage the Holy See on
what we have called the "moral imperative" of biotech food. A
Vatican document on world hunger planned for drafting this fall
offers another opening for our work on the issue and a chance to
influence a wide segment of the population in Europe and the
developing world.
USG, Holy See Officials Meet
2. (SBU) Michael Hall, Biotechnology Advisor for USAID's
Regional Economic Development Services Office in Nairobi, met
with Monsignor James Reinert of the Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace (J and P), and Jack Bobo, Deputy Chief,
EB/TTP/ABT/BTT, met with Fr. Michael Osborn of the Pontifical
Council Cor Unum, offering a chance to push the Vatican on
biotech issues, and an opportunity for Post to analyze the
current state of play on biotech in the Vatican generally. Both
meetings took place at the Vatican. J and P takes the official
lead on biotech issues at the Vatican, and has been quite active
in recent years, often working closely with Post (03 VAT 4859;
03 ROME 5205; 04 VAT 3810). Cor Unum, the Vatican's
clearinghouse for aid efforts worldwide, is another potential
ally on biotech, as food aid to the developing world is a great
part of its brief.
Science and Safety not the Problem
3. (SBU) Discussing the climate on biotech foods at the
Vatican, Osborn assured Bobo that doubts about the safety and
the legitimacy of the science of these technologies would not be
a long-term problem in efforts to bring the Holy See further
along on biotech. He noted that the Holy See did not feel that
the genetic modification of plants posed any moral problem.
Osborn mentioned a few clerical and other critics who had spoken
out at Post's biotech conference last year co-sponsored by the
Pontifical Academy of Sciences (04 VAT 3810), raising the alarm
about the alleged dire effects of biotech food on health and the
environment. "You're going to have a few people who continue to
use scare tactics about the science," Osborn said, "but little
by little, they will cease to be a factor." Within the Vatican,
he said, the mainstream opinion is that the science is solid.
Bobo filled Osborn in on recent studies that backed up this
view, and directed him to a recent World Health Organization
(WHO) report that found: "GM foods currently available on the
international market have passed risk assessments and are not
likely to, nor have been shown to, present risks for human
health." The report is available in English, French, and
Spanish at: dy/en/index.html.
Economic Angle is Crucial
4. (SBU) According to Osborn, the main issue for the Church
will continue to be the economic angle of biotech food. Many in
the Church fear that these technologies are going to make
developing-world farmers more dependent on others, and simply
serve to enrich multi-national corporations. In his
conversation with Reinert, Hall also acknowledged this concern,
but noted that some researchers were working on crops such as
cowpeas and cassava that were unlikely to make big profits, but
could benefit the developing world. Bobo pointed out to Osborn
that competition between companies and the regulatory process in
individual countries provided some safeguards on these issues.
Poloff mentioned presentations given at Post's conference
showing that in several communities in various parts of the
developing world, the advent of biotech crops had brought
significant economic benefits for developing-world farmers.
While seed companies had made some profits, the big losers
appeared to have been multi-national pesticide companies.
Describing several examples of his group's projects, Hall
assured Reinert that USAID initiatives sought to empower
Africans and address their needs rather than blindly promote
U.S. interests.
Opposition Still Active
5. (SBU) Post notes that Catholic opposition to biotech food is
still active. Elements of the Catholic population, primarily in
the English-speaking world, peppered the Pontifical Academy of
Sciences and J and P with hostile emails when they moved forward
on the issue in the past two years. The UK-based anti-GMO
Catholic Institute for International Relations has been very
active on the issue, as well, often through the influential
English Catholic magazine, the Tablet. (In fact a letter from a
CIIR member in the July 30 Tablet made questionable assertions
attacking biotech.) Reinert said that many clergy, especially
those working in the developing world, continued to be
anti-biotech, though many seemed uninformed about the science.
He pointed to the Philippines as a country with a particularly
anti-GMO Catholic hierarchy, joking that the Filipino Church
would "go into schism" if the Vatican came out any stronger for
biotech food.
Comment: Next Steps
6. (C) By word and action the Pontifical Council for Justice
and Peace and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences have
established the Holy See as giving at least a cautious go-ahead
to bioengineered foods. It may be difficult to get much more in
the near future. The pope has not shown his cards on the issue,
but some feel he may have been influenced by European prejudices
against biotech food. Further, before the papal transition, J
and P sent a document laying out a moral/theological case for
biotech food to the pope's old curial dicastery for clearance --
the theological watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith (CDF). For whatever reason, the document never came back
from CDF. What's more, Post's greatest ally at the Vatican on
the question, Cardinal Renato Martino of J and P, may be through
pushing the issue. A Martino deputy told us recently that the
cardinal had cooperated with Embassy Vatican on biotech over the
past two years in part to compensate for his vocal disapproval
of the Iraq war and its aftermath -- to keep relations with the
USG smooth. According to our source, Martino no longer feels
the need to take this approach.
7. (C) Despite these less encouraging signs, opportunities
exist to press the issue with the Vatican, and in turn to
influence a wide segment of the population in Europe and the
developing world. According to Osborn, Cor Unum will be taking
the lead this fall on the updating of a Holy See document on
world hunger. In light of recent work that has been done on the
subject, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations' 2003-04 State of Food and Agriculture report
that gave a cautious backing to the use of biotech food for the
developing world, it will be difficult for the Holy See to avoid
the issue. We will continue to press the "moral imperative" of
biotech, publicizing and sharing data that show the economic
benefit of these technologies to farmers, and explaining the
safeguards that exist to prevent economic exploitation. Sharing
information on research on non-cash crops such as cassava will
also be important to winning Vatican hearts and minds.
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