(From Prakash: Father Leo is a rare individual – the only Jesuit priest that I know who is also a plant biotechnologist. Trained in Germany, he heads a lab at a small college in India that employs biotechnology in developing solutions to local problems in agriculture. He has also has trained over three decades many students and scholars. A celibate priest who understands the virtues of modern gene transfer that obviates the hassles of sexual crossing in plants.)
I am writing this response as a Jesuit plant breeder and a Jesuit Biotechnologist. Plant breeding is in principle modifying the existing genome of plants using various techniques. Genes have been modified by nature, plant breeders and, in recent years, by transgenic technology.
A somewhat recent phenomenon that has surfaced in the society is the pursuit of purity when it comes to food. It can be seen most clearly in the preference towards organic food and non-genetically modified organisms (GMO), a movement which has been gaining momentum. This is especially apparent when it is viewed within the context of the state of the food industry today: on the whole, more and more chemicals and GMOs are being used in farming to produce the highest yield possible, thus maximizing the profits.
This is the full paper presented by the Jesuit priests Father Roland Lesseps SJ and Father Peter Henriot SJ at the International Symposium on “Genetically Modified Organisms, Threat or Hope?”, held in Rome 10-11 November 2003. It was organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and presided by Council Prefect Cardinal Renato Martino. Fr Roland Lesseps SJ is Instructor at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre and Fr Peter Henriot SJ is Director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, both in Luska, Zambia.
This article will not address the issue of genetically modified oganisms or GMOs directly. We now have more than 15 years global experience of GMO crops. There is abundant evidence from top scientists across the world that GMO food is harmful. They cause cancers, allergies, infertility, and affect internal organs. GMO crops cross pollinate with non-GMO plants and contaminate the world’s genetic resource base. GMO crops are bad for the environment. There has been an increase in chemical use in agriculture with the introduction of GMO crops. And in general, GMO crops perform less well than non-GMO crops.
At recent major conferences of the United Nations, such as the 2002 World Food Summit+5 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, United States government officials, often accompanied by agro-business company representatives, pushed a model of biotechnology which has been intensely questioned by farmers and others around the world. This model involves the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds. Even as questions about the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continue to be raised, the U.S. has included GM seed in USAID programs and food relief donations. GM seed is farmed in such scale in North America that the risks of contamination to non-genetically modified crops are a concern to many involved in international food, agriculture and trade issues.
An organic planting system developed by a Jesuit Priest is lauded as one of the most important developments for small scale farmers in 50 years.
Sumant Kumar, a farmer in the village of Darveshpura in northeast India’s state of Bihar, usually harvested four to five metric tons of rice per hectare, which is about the paddy yield average, worldwide. However, in 2011, with techniques that use organic fertilizer and no herbicides or GMOs, and which require less water and seeds, he astonishingly grew 22.4 metric tons, a world record, on just one hectare.