By Clet Wandui MASIGA
Conservation Biologist, Geneticist and Farm Entrepreneur
On Saturday December 5th, 2015 at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), the Director CARITAS, Justice and peace, Archdiocese of Kampala Rev. Fr. Vicent Kisenyi Byansi together with Caritas farmers praised research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Rev. Fr. Vicent Kisenyi Byasi knelt down and openly apologized to his parishioners and participants who had attended a sensitization workshop on intensive livestock management, urban farming and biotechnology for having got duped/manipulated and misinformed about the science of genetic modification.
During the workshop, more than 70 farmer leaders and mobilisers from Caritas- Archdiocese of Kampala lauded the work GMOs and scientists in developing solutions to their farming challenges, including the use of genetic modification to address the dreadful banana bacteria wilt.
The catholic priest further urged the farmers and Ugandans to continue supporting the great work of scientists in finding solutions to some of their farming constraints. The leaders noted that a lot of mis-information had been spread by some people, including a few within Caritas, demonizing the work of the gallant scientists but they urged the scientists to continue the good work in championing the cause of farmers in the country. Fr Byansi particularly asked that those who led the mis-information to be forgiven by God. The workshop was organized by NARO in partnership with Caritas. The participants learnt of the available products of genetic modification in improving banana, cassava, maize, potato, sweet potato, and rice in Uganda. Participants also learnt on the potential risks with GM technology and how these risks are and must be managed using appropriate legislation as proposed in the National biotechnology and Biosafety Bill. Caritas farmer leaders, parishioners and its director pledged to fully support the need for the parliamentarians to adopt the bill.
He pledging his support for GMOs, Fr. Byasi re-echoed the words almost in almost exactly the same way as did Pope John Paul II in 2000 as part of the great jubilee celebrations. He stated that the famous words of Genesis entrust the earth to man’s use, not abuse.
Rev. Fr. Vicent Kisenyi Byasi is one of the first prominent leaders of the Catholic Church and Caritas Justice and Peace commission to openly declare support for GMOs. The Catholic-founded CARITAS is one of the key anti-GMO groups in Uganda and globally. This was a historic undertaking by our Catholic leadership and parishioners who also learnt DNA technology is used to create new crop varieties for the benefit of human kind. They acknowledged that they had been misled by organic promoters and anti-GMO activists and expressed support for GMOs to solve some of challenges they face in their daily farming activities. They said that non of anti-GMO activists, soil scientists, organists or organic promoters, pseudo-scientists and some misled priests, are not solving nor even attempting to solve serious crop pests, diseases and abiotic stresses.
The participants disclosed that there is an organic promoter who works with anti-GMO activists and has been selling farmers a fake anti-chemical claiming it controls banana bacterial wilt disease. This crooked business man had in addition been very successful in misleading the Catholic Church in particular CARITAS to mobilize its members and farmers, to be trained on the use and adoption of his concoction which NARO recently discovered on testing to be a mere combination of fertilizers and some unknown formulation. The crook was even telling lies that he had gotten approval of NARO which was not true.
The Catholic priest asked the parishioners to be sharp-eyed not to be duped by anti-GMO activists who are not specialists in plant breeding, nor do not possess any scientific standing, as to oppose genetic engineering. He said he has a personal firm belief that GM-technology presents immense opportunities for farmers to benefit from.
I take this opportunity to thank Rev. Fr. Vicent Kisenyi Byasi and the Parishioners of the Archidiocese of Kampala for taking this courageous position in leading the church to adopt the GMOs whose safety and benefits has been proven over nearly the past two decades in countries with more than half of the world’s population. Other religious leaders and priests should emulate this catholic priest and help our people have access to this modern technology to make their farming competitive and profitable. This will also lead to increased productivity of farm products for food, fuel, fibre and feed.
According to Wikipedia, in 1999, after two years of discussions, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life stated that modifying the genes of plants and animals is theologically acceptable. The Guardian reported that “Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice- president of the pontifical academy, said: ‘We are increasingly encouraged that the advantages of genetic engineering of plants and animals are greater than the risks. The risks should be carefully followed through openness, analysis and controls, but without a sense of alarm.’ Referring to genetically modified products such as corn and soya, Sgreccia added: ‘We give it a prudent ‘yes’ We cannot agree with the position of some groups that say it is against the will of God to meddle with the genetic make-up of plants and animals.'”
In 2000 as part of the Great Jubilee Pope John Paul II gave an address concerning agriculture, at which he said: The “famous words of Genesis entrust the earth to man’s use, not abuse. They do not make man the absolute arbiter of the earth’s governance, but the Creator’s “co-worker”: a stupendous mission, but one which is also marked by precise boundaries that can never be transgressed with impunity. 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 the future of the earth.
A 2002 meeting between bishops and scientists in the Philippines concluded that biotechnology could be an important stepping stone in the struggle against hunger and environmental pollution.
A 2003 symposium gathered by Cardinal Renato T. Martino has examined the use of GMOs in modern agriculture. The symposium’s study argued that the future of humanity is at stake and that there is no room for the ideological arguments advanced by environmentalists. Velasio De Paolis, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Urban University, has said that it was “easy to say no to GM food if your stomach is full”.
A 2009 study on genetically modified organisms sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences came to a favorable conclusion on GMOs, viewing them as praiseworthy for improving the lives of the poor.
This year (2015), Pope Francis wrote and released the Encyclical Letter. The letter suggests the need for a scientific-evidence-based decision-making in advancement of a modern agriculture that offers food, nutrition and income security. He also seems to respects scientists’ right to protect their intellectual property [IP] from the works of their hands and brains, just as Arts-professionals or artisans do copy right their works (literary works, music, art, dance, drama, comedy, books e.t.c).
Quote: “If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others”
The detailed key excerpts are:
New biological technologies………..
- In the philosophical and theological vision of the human being and of creation which I have presented, it is clear that the human person, endowed with reason and knowledge, is not an external factor to be excluded. While human intervention on plants and animals is permissible when it pertains to the necessities of human life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only “if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives”.The Catechism firmly states that human power has limits and that “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly”.All such use and experimentation “requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation”.
- Here I would recall the balanced position of Saint John Paul II, who stressed the benefits of scientific and technological progress as evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action”, while also noting that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas”.He made it clear that the Church values the benefits which result “from the study and applications of molecular biology, supplemented by other disciplines such as genetics, and its technological application in agriculture and industry”.But he also pointed out that this should not lead to “indiscriminate genetic manipulation” which ignores the negative effects of such interventions. Human creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others. We need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks.
- This, then, is the correct framework for any reflection concerning human intervention on plants and animals, which at present includes genetic manipulation by biotechnology for the sake of exploiting the potential present in material reality. The respect owed by faith to reason calls for close attention to what the biological sciences, through research uninfluenced by economic interests, can teach us about biological structures, their possibilities and their mutations. Any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order “to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God”.
- It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application. Genetic mutations, in fact, have often been, and continue to be, caused by nature itself. Nor are mutations caused by human intervention a modern phenomenon. The domestication of animals, the crossbreeding of species and other older and universally accepted practices can be mentioned as examples. We need but recall that scientific developments in GM cereals began with the observation of natural bacteria which spontaneously modified plant genomes. In nature, however, this process is slow and cannot be compared to the fast pace induced by contemporary technological advances, even when the latter build upon several centuries of scientific progress.
In conclusion, GMOs continue to benefit farmers in countries where half of the word population lives. However, there continues to be a lot of misinformation about GMOs. We need courageous leaders like Rev. Fr. Vicent Kisenyi Byasi to take broad decisions to support use of this GMOs to benefit humanity.