Biotechnologies: Hope in Fight Against Hunger?

Author: Archbishop Agostino Marchetto


Archbishop Agostino Marchetto

On 18 November 2000 a convention was organized by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Rome, on the theme "New Frontiers for Bioethics: The Biotechnologies". The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the review Medicina e Morale. During the meeting Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, the Holy See's Permanent Observer at the UN Organizations and Agencies for Food and Agriculture, spoke on "Biotechnologies: Hope in the Fight against World Hunger?". Here is the text of his address, which was given in English.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like first of all to thank you for inviting me to take part in this celebration of the commitment that puts out the journal Medicina e Morale, a commitment to research, study and passionate concern, a commitment that clearly shows forth the vocation of Sacred Heart Catholic University.

That this Conference is exploring the themes associated with biotechnologies shows that this commitment is very much alive today as it looks towards new frontiers of learning and research, setting as its point of reference the human person and human hopes for better living conditions—in keeping with the concept of "being a person", that is, a creature of both spirit and flesh made in the image of God.

In the world at large, there are many situations today in which the requirements of human "well-being" are not met. It is enough to think of the spectres of hunger and malnutrition which—because they are so fundamental, involving a prime human need, and because they are global, involving the entire planet—tower above other negative aspects of progress.

The Conference organizers have asked me to reflect on the question: "Is it possible to see in biotechnologies some hope for providing effective solutions to the problems which cause world hunger?". What they are seeking is insight from the particular perspective of the Holy See's representative, whose "job" it is to know, stimulate, motivate, support and evaluate international efforts to tackle world hunger as undertaken by the three intergovernmental agencies based in Rome—the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Programme—which have this as their specific purpose and function. It is possible that no answer to the question will be found if our method of inquiry does not involve a survey of data and facts which will reveal signs that are both encouraging and unsettling. This is necessary in order to counteract the now widespread tendency to ignore questions raised about biotechnologies or to link it exclusively with other sectors (in this way we can identify the true benefits of biotechnologies as well as their drawbacks): this is the case with patents, health care and research when it is forgotten that a correct and ethical evaluation of biotechnologies must begin with an independent accounting and assessment of it.1. Surveying the Problem: hunger and malnutrition in the world

It is estimated that 826 million people live in a situation of chronic undernourishment. In the last five years, international efforts to overcome hunger have lowered the figure of those malnourished by about eight million a year. Although this indicates a positive trend, it is not enough to meet the goal set by the international community at the World Food Summit in 1996, that of achieving an approximate 50 per cent reduction in the world's hungry by the year 2015, reducing the number from 800 million to 400 million. The uncertainty of food availability remains, therefore, an alarming situation which places in serious jeopardy the eventual development of a large part of the planet. This is the case notwithstanding very positive indications, such as world food production which is at high enough levels to provide for a growing world population.

2. Biotechnologies: prospects in the fight against hunger

To make the most of the potentials offered by biotechnologies in the effort to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in the world, it seems to me necessary first of all to note the objective limits to its use. As we have already observed, one often speaks in general terms of the positive and negative effects of biotechnologies, linking it perhaps to particular "doctrinal", technical or ideological positions which threaten to remove the discussion from its "natural" context, which is science, research and—in a parallel sense —ethics, law and politics, as is shown by the spirit of this meeting, from which it is hoped there will emerge perspectives which are objective and have a "fundamentum inre".

A first essential observation reveals that biotechnologies are neither singular nor exclusive, and cannot be considered the only possibility which scientific and technical progress offers in the fight against hunger. In fact, biotechnologies are but one technology among others being used to achieve the same goal.

Secondly, it must be recognized that the areas in which biotechnologies can be applied to agriculture, and thus to developing and securing food supplies, are rather extensive. This presents a variety of possibilities which cannot fail to have both positive and negative aspects. Therefore, relative to our discussion here, it is not immediately possible to assess the effectiveness of biotechnologies in the fight against hunger without placing it in the larger context of agricultural development.

Let me point out immediately that it is significant that the intergovernmental agencies working in the area of agriculture and food supply have adopted the definition of biotechnology found in the Convention on Biological Diversity "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use" (Art. 2). On the basis of this definition, we can note, on the one hand, that the use of living organisms to "create", modify or improve animal or plant species, or to develop special microorganisms, has been adopted for a very long time, and, on the other hand, that the essential element of "new" biotechnologies is the introduction of the so called "transgenic" element, the transfer of genes from one species to another to obtain new varieties. There was a time, however, when the selections and hybridizations took place only within the same species. This shift is one of the essential differences between "old" and "new" biotechnologies.

I would point out, in this context, that the international role taken up by the FAO in this regard is very significant. As a historical fact, I will recall that as early as 1960 there was already an interest in the so-called "green revolution".

A survey of the contemporary situation suggests that what is required is greater agricultural production by means of new biotechnologies in countries where such productivity is too low, keeping in mind the demands of ecosystems—and thus of crops and natural resources—and of persons, with a view to attaining sustainable levels of food production and quality. It is evident in every case that faced with enormous agricultural potential there remains the fundamental question of what the concrete gains will be and who will be the real beneficiaries.Attempts to modify plant varieties can certainly produce crops which are capable of faster growth, which provide greater quantities, and which are free from or at least resistant to diseases. An example from the mid-1960s is the appearance on the market of the first genetically modified tomato. This represents not only the emergence of a new product but of a greater capacity to produce foods meeting consumer demands(organic characteristics, flavour and resistance to pathogenic factors).

But the scope for applying biotechnologies to agricultural development and thus to food supply has not been completely explored, especially in tropical and subtropical zones. One thinks of the possibility of producing varieties of plants able to cope with climate changes, soil salinity and the harmful effects of intensive cultivation.

In any case, for example, the results already obtained in the selection of forage and grass for pasture has enabled increased animal production in Latin America. In other areas the use of biotechnologies permits the production of species and varieties well adapted to the environment and to the demand and preferences of the people. This is the case with millet, sorghum and cassava in Africa. By the same token, biotechnologies—if used appropriately—can change the productivity levels in arid or desert zones by introducing efficient systems which allow the reuse of water resources for agricultural irrigation. On this point the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development claimed recently that the use of biotechnologies in agriculture "offers a way to stop the suffering", because "genetically modified food could almost literally weed out poverty".

Up to this point, I have presented preliminary observations in the awareness that the potential for development has not always been brought about in concrete situations. At the same time, there are more and more questions about the ever increasing use of biotechnological procedures.

It is not my purpose here to offer an ethical evaluation of the nature, use, consumption and commercialization of genetically modified organisms and their effects; but I would like to recall that from 1961 onwards, at the behest of the FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been efforts underway to draft a "Codex Alimentarius", a collection of norms and standards for foods quality and safety which is common to 165 countries, for the purpose, on the one hand, of protecting the health of the person as consumer and, on the other, of providing some guidelines for world food production and the world food industry, and consequently for the selling of foodstuffs,

3. Action to control the effects of biotechnologies in the fight against hunger

It remains to be seen whether an intervention on the part of intergovernmental institutions working in the areas of biotechnologies and the development of agriculture and food supplies is really possible. Among the institutions with competence in these areas, I am thinking of the FAO, through the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), associated with the World Bank.

One limitation is that investment in biotechnological research tends to be concentrated in more developed countries, resting in fact in the hands of the private sector, with no effective means of checking the risks and the so-called ecological consequences which accompany the effects on the health of human beings and animals. The FAO, for example, observes that the so-called "gene transfer" process can produce more aggressive plants with the possibility of transmitting toxins, or those allergenic to human beings and animals, and that it can produce species more resistant to diseases. In both cases the ecosystem is clearly knocked out of balance.

Undoubtedly, the most important question concerns the link between the use, of biotechnologies and the loss of biodiversity, since biotechnologies are still something of an enigma when it comes to respect for the agricultural environment and the survival of biological diversity. In this sense, any intervention intended to introduce new techniques into the process of plant and animal farming will have to place importance on the relationship between increased production, stability of resources and respect for ecosystems.

The effectively new element in the effort to link protection of biodiversity, the fight against hunger and international action can clearly be traced back to 1983 when, during the 22nd FA0 Conference, the "International Undertaking on Phytogenetic Resources" was adopted. This is a commitment which, although essentially political, obliges the countries accepting it to protect and preserve genetic resources connected with plants, while at the same time it allows a distribution of these resources to less developed areas. The fundamental principle of the "Undertaking" is that phytogenetic resources are "a common heritage of mankind",to be preserved, protected and given to the free use of present and future generations. Here there is a clear concern for sustainability, a notion which was developed on the international level only in subsequent years. Undoubtedly this text brought together many of the views of food and agricultural development of the poorest countries, even if at the time of implementation it was necessary to provide interpretations of some of the most controversial points. The "interpretative" resolutions of the FAO Conference seek to reconcile the requirements and interests of developed countries with those of developing nations in the application of the "International Undertaking".

The possibilities created by this initiative with regard just to phytogenetic resources allowed the FAO from 1993 onwards to begin a process for broadening its aims so as to bring the contents of the "Undertaking" into line with the Convention on Biological Diversity, and at the same time to extend it to all present or potential, genetic resources in agriculture, and consequently in the fight against hunger. In this regard, two fundamental shifts need to be noted. The Convention on Biological Diversity upholds the sovereign right of States over their own natural resources, with the result that "the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national Governments and is subject to national legislation". This is a principle which in spirit seeks to safeguard the position of developing countries, which are in fact the holders of the greater part of the genetic resources existing on the planet. The FAO accepted this principle, adding to it a second one—and this is the other fundamental shift—that genetic resources are to be understood as the common heritage of mankind. In fact, Recommendation 18/95 of the FAO Conference states "The concept of mankind's heritage, as applied to the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, is subject to the sovereignty of the States over their plant genetic resources".

With this revision as its starting-point, the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, operating within the FAO, began to compile an appropriate "Code of Conduct on Biotechnologies" to be applied to the genetic resources concerning food and agriculture. In the work done so far, the text is elaborated on the basis of five objectives:

a) prevention of risks and other questions relating to the environment;

b) focusing of intellectual property rights and the farmers' rights;

c) choice of appropriate biotechnologies for developing countries;

d) reduction to a minimum of the possible harmful effects of biotechnologies;

e) a possible mechanism for following future developments, according to the principle of supranational controls.

Immediate interest is stirred at the idea of such a "Code", since the opening of the Preamble states that "the new biotechnologies have a great potential for increasing food production and for promoting agricultural development". Although this is a strong statement of intention, it remains tied to the notion of animal and plant genetic resources coming from the Convention on Biological Diversity, which,linking the notion of common heritage of mankind to those resources, judges them usable and exploitable for the purposes of research and commerce.

There seems to emerge, therefore, a tendency towards a safe and feasible use of biotechnological techniques to ensure greater safety of food supply, which also provides long-term protection of biodiversity and the environment. It thus becomes necessary to find means to observe the levels of biological safety and to evaluate the risks related to the products of biotechnology, and to introduce mechanisms and means which make it possible to check the use of these products, neutralizing eventual harmful effects. Especially debated today in government institutions working against hunger is the absence of an appropriate set of norms which would permit the greater use of hybrid plants and the lack of safety checks on foods produced from them. This is certainly true of the developing countries for which the introduction of new herbicide-resistant genes into plants cannot simply be accepted without an understanding of the risk which this resistance may have on other organisms and on different species.

It is clear therefore that there is a lack of set rules, notwithstanding the work of the FAO/WHO Commission of the "Codex Alimentarius", which I have already mentioned, and the fact that the norms and principles of the "Codex" are explicitly incorporated into subsequent international guidelines which more directly touch upon commercialization and trade, I am referring here to the two agreements reached in the negotiations of Uruguay Round, which today are under the control of the World Trade Organization (WTO): the "Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures" and the "Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade". In both cases we find norms which are binding on the conduct of States and which today, with a force almost toostrong, play a role in the renegotiation of trade agreements with regard to agricultural products within the WTO. Although stalled by the Seattle impasse, these agreements nevertheless now become an indispensable means not only for the removal or the renegotiation of trade barriers but also for the fight against hunger.

A very precise indication of this can be found both in the activity of some international agencies which are working directly in the commercial field—I am thinking to the Organization for Economic Cooperationand Development—andin the application of the Convention on Biological Diversity, inparticular its "Protocol on Biosafety", better known as the Cartagena Protocol.

Risk management implies considering different avenues for action, once they have been evaluated. This is certainly a delicate aspect of risk analysis, from which there derives the principle or strategy of precaution.

4. Choices regarding, biotechnologies in the fight against hunger: between the 'political will' of states and the 'governance' of international questions

If the application of the "principle of precaution"—or in any case an evaluation of the compatibility of products deriving from biotechnologies in conformity with safety concerns—is an essential element in the relationship between new techniques and the fight against hunger, then we cannot forget—I say it again—the close connection which these have with biodiversity. In this sense, we can insist that without biodiversity biotechnologies remain something purely theoretical and that the preservation and use of biodiversity must be safeguarded by biotechnologies.

Seen in this light, biotechnologies appear increasingly to respond to the demands of the market and to corresponding claims rather than to the real needs of developing countries. A study of markets becomes fundamental, then, for determining if and how biotechnological procedures might be used without limiting or compromising social needs, economic returns and the productive capacity of traditional systems in developing countries. This for us is the great human question, which becomes a Christian question as well.

It may help in this regard to mention the work of the FAO which, taking care to provide governments the necessary help in devising development plans or specific norms, is concerned first of all with building research infrastructures in the field of biotechnologies.

At the present time it is possible—or so it seems—only to set some priorities which take different perspectives into account in order to allow a careful use of biotechnologies and their real potential for increasing food production and, thus, for combatting hunger. One cannot simply draw attention to certain aspects of the use of biotechnologies which, on their own, may be questionable. I am referring to intellectual property rights, with the related problem of patents, and to issues of food safety,including risks for the consumer. Faced with these questions, there is a danger that the appeal to fundamental principles, such as the principle of precaution,or to specific analytical methods, such as that of comparative advantages,risks is not enough.

Before all else, the problem remains linked to thecapacity for making the most of initiatives for development, to adapting and using biotechnologies and products associated with them on the basis of real needs andon that of the conservation of the environment and its resources. Only when the security of a world food supply is improved in this way will there also be an analogous improvement in the level of life for all people, with respect for biodiversity andecosystems.

In concluding this initial look at a phenomenon as vast and complex as biotechnologies, I cannot but echo, evenin this scientific gathering, the principles and guidance—perhaps even the warning—given by the Holy Father to those who work in the area of food production and agriculture with different roles and different responsibilities. During the recent Jubilee of the World of Agriculture, Pope John Paul II declared:"This is a principle to be remembered in agricultural production itself, whenever there is a question of its advance through the application of biotechnologies, which cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of immediate economic interests. They must be submitted beforehand to rigorous scientific and ethical examination, to prevent them from becoming disastrous for human health and for the future of the earth". Towards the end of his speech, however, he added: "Walk in the furrows of your best tradition, opening yourselves to all the important developments of the technological era, but jealously safeguarding the perennial values which distinguish you. This is also the way to give a hope-filled future to the world of agriculture".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 March 2001, page 9

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