Friday, January 7, 2011

Commentary on Wikileaks: Leaked State Department Cable Reveals Vatican, Philippine Church Concerns over Economically Exploitative Potentials of Genetically Modified Organisms

By Chanda Shahani

Groups that oppose biotech or genetic engineering research and its implementation in the Philippines have a powerful ally in the Vatican and the Philippine Catholic Church, a leaked cable from the United States State Department but released by Wikileaks shows.

The leaked cable was dated August 26, 2005 but made available by Wikileaks at several of its sites on December 21, 2010 including this numbered mirror site:

Surprisingly, the Vatican and the Philippine Catholic Church do not oppose biotech or genetic engineering on the grounds of creation theory which holds that only God has the right to manipulate life in order to create variants of life forms. Neither are they opposed to genetic engineering on grounds of safety issues, the cable said.

The World Health Organization defines genetically modified (GM) organisms and food crops as "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.Such methods are used to create GM plants – which are then used to grow GM food crops (

The Vatican and several Philippine Catholic laypeople and clergy are concerned, however about the global food industry structure which allows the creation of GM foods and cash crops which end up displacing the economic interests of subsistence farmers.

The leaked cable pepared by Peter Martin, a political officer of the State Department referred to meetings held at the Vatican  between Michael Hall, Biotechnology Advisor of USAID Regional Economic Development Services Office in Nairobi who met with Monsignor James Reinert of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Jack Bobo, Deputy Chief EB/TTP/ABT/BTT who met with Father Michael Osborn of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.Cor Unum is the Vatican's clearinghouse for aid efforts worldwide, including food aid.

Father Osborn said that the Holy See did not feel that the genetic modification of plants posed any moral problem. Within the mainstream Vatican, he said, the mainstream opinion is that the science is solid. Bobo also informed Osborn about recent studies such as a World Health Organization (WHO) report that said that GM foods currently available on the market have passed risk assessments and are not at all likely to have adverse effects on human health (

However, the Vatican which despite opposition from its later leadership, including Pope John Paul II, has also been influenced in its policies by liberation theology, as espoused by Pope John Paul which articulated that the church should work for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. Seen from this perspective, GM cash crops would make developing world farmers from countries such as the Philippines dependent on multinational corporations chemical farm inputs such as fertilizers and certain kinds of pesticides which are absolutely necessary to grow patented GM cash crops. As a result, the Vatican would be opposed to such exploitation because it would be anti-poor.

Monsignor Reinert said in the cable that the Philippines was 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."

According to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations website (, developed countries such as the United States, and Canada, and developing countries like Argentina, China, and Mexico,are already growing GMO crops in large scale. Examples of these plants are transgenic cotton, potato and corn which contain the endotoxin gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). 

Bt is a bacterium which produces a toxin that affects only certain insects but not other organisms. Since 1995, the US government has approved the sale and use of Bt plants. In fact, there is a shortage of supply of seeds of Bt crops since farmers prefer to plant these crops. In 1998, the area planted to transgenic crops worldwide, excluding China was 27.8 M hectares. It is estimated that in 1999, the area planted to transgenic crops could reach up to 44 million hectares or more.

The website said that GMO plants that are now being used in other countries have passed through very strict laboratory and field tests to show that they are safe for humans and not harmful to the environment. In the United States, for example, transgenic plants are evaluated by three regulatory agencies - the US Department of Agriculture, US Food and Drug Administration and US Environmental Protection Agency prior to their commercialization.

In the Philippines, researches on transgenic plants are regulated by the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP). Their strict guidelines ensure the safety of the public and the environment before granting permission for researches in this field. Reportedly, the Philippines has one of the most stringent biosafety guidelines in the world.

GMOs may be used as a component of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The selected genes that are transferred to the plants are toxic only to plant pests. Other natural enemies such as spiders, predators, parasites, and parasitoides are not affected. A combination of cultural, chemical and biological control can also be used to protect plants from pests if necessary.

In the Philippines, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH), both in Los Baños, and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in Nueva Ecija are undertaking transgenic researches to improve the resistance of rice varieties to insect pests. BIOTECH and the Institute of Plant Breeding, also in the University of The Philippines Los Baños, are undertaking a joint study to produce a local Bt corn variety resistant to the Asiatic corn borer. IPB-UPLB has also already started its research to produce transgenic papaya and mango with delayed ripening characteristics.

However, no national policy has yet been formulated on the appropriate role of BIOTECH in UPLB and PhilRice, which are government institutions in undertaking cutting edge research that may have the potential of making farmers, who are already dependent on multinational pesticides and fertilizers for their farm inputs even more dependent by economically tying them into the purchase of GMO plants which would require the purchase of certain crop seeds that were created by multinational companies with the Bt gene, and thus create a monopolistic situation while reducing the biodiversity of crop species being grown by farmers.

Earlier, the Diliman Diary had reported on the leading role that UPLB and U.P. Mindanao were playing in conducting field research on Bt eggplants being grown on a test basis in Davao City. Concerns over potentials of biological contamination impelled the Davao City government to destroy the plants over the protests of U.P. officials (

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