Position Statements on Biotechnology

Vatican Pontifical Academy of Life

Website: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical


Two New Books Clarify Questions on Genetic Modification

VATICAN CITY, OCT 12, 1999 (ZENIT).- Transgenic foods, genetic maps and sex selection are just the tip of the iceberg that has sparked the debate on the ethical repercussions of the use of biotechnology. Both scientists and ethicians alike are trying to agree on the limits and use of this new emerging field. At present, there is a clash between those who have denounced the encouragement of alarmist views, devoid of scientific basis and, those who stress the enormous advantages that can be gleaned from a proper use of biotechnology.

To date, the Church has not pronounced itself explicitly on this matter. Believers and non believers ask a very serious question: what is the Catholic moral position regarding genetic manipulation?

To answer this question, the Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution created by John Paul II himself in 1994, has published two volumes, one on the human genome and another on biotechnology.

Scientific Progress

According to one of the most prestigious European geneticists, Jesuit Angelo Serra, Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine of the Sacred Heart University in Rome, "research on the human genome began in 1989 and after ten years we only know about 6% of this map that contains 3 billion letters. 1,462 genes are known, on which genetic diseases depend, and 4,500
monogenetic illnesses have been identified, to which must be added all the rest, such as tumors, which are poligenetic illnesses." Serra said that "the progress of scientific knowledge is exceptional, although its application is deficient. The 600 experiments of genetic engineering that are currently underway on illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, monogenetic and enzymatic sicknesses, to date have not given definitive results, as they have not succeeded in curing the dysfunction of some genes that cause the sicknesses."

New Medical Responsibility

Serra denounced that "instead of making the medical and health personnel more aware of their own responsibilities, this knowledge is heading "toward moral shipwreck." By way of example he mentioned pre-natal diagnoses, which "tend to eliminate the subject that could develop the sickness, instead of curing it." He added that "there are real cases of eugenics that are triumphing in the field of medicine."

Professor Serra was certain that "the progress in knowledge will bring great benefits to mankind; consequently, science must not be incriminated." Yet, he acknowledged that science "requires greater responsibility and attention on the part of the medical corps and institutions, by respecting the ethical limits that many would like to ignore."

Catastrophic Sensationalism

Giuseppe Bertoni, professor at the Institute of Zootechnology of the Sacred Heart University in Piacenza, criticized "the catastrophic sensationalism with which the press reports on biotechnology," specifically, he rejected the "idea of conceiving scientific progress as something that should be feared."

"It's true that ethical limits must be respected, but above all the reality of biotechnology must be known. Because of this I say: 'If you know biotechnology, you don't fear it.' "

"To reject biotechnology because its patent is in the hands of multinational corporations, is an deological argument -- not a scientific one. Perhaps what Rifkin says is true, that corporations have 40% of the knowledge in this field, but it is also true that the public structures and the smallest European enterprises are committed to this research and offer guarantees that must not be ignored," Bertoni said.

Regarding animal cloning, Bertoni said that "it could help to resolve in a final way the problem of species in the process of extinction. It is being tried with the panda, and it could be applied to other species."

The Church's Position

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and director of the Institute of Bioethics of the Sacred Heart University of Rome, explained that "there are no specific indications from the Magisterium of the Church on biotechnology. Because of this, I have stopped all those who demand the condemnation of these products."

"The book, 'Animal and Vegetable Biotechnology: New Frontiers and New Responsibilities,' is a contribution toward clarifying this question. We give the ideological lines: research in the biotechnological field could resolve enormous problems as, for example, the adaptation of agriculture to arid land, thus conquering hunger. The biotechnological products must contribute to man's wellbeing, giving guarantees in face of possible risks. Therefore, what is needed is honesty. Once the proper health characteristics of the product are guaranteed, it is right that the
consumer should know if it has been genetically modified."

Finally, Bishop Sgreccia confirmed that "the Pontifical Academy for Life says no to the cloning of man in all its forms."

1) Vatican 2001. Science and the Future of Mankind: Science for Man and Man for Science

- The Proceedings of the Preparatory Session 12-14 November 1999 and the Jubilee Plenary Session 10-13 November 2000, The Pontificial Academy of Sciences, Rome, 2001.

2) Pontifical Academy of Sciences Endorses Biotech Crops

- Andrew Apel <agbionews@earthlink.net>, AgBioView, May 16, 2002 http://www.agbioworld.org/

In "Science and the Future of Mankind: Science for Man and Man for Science," the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has published the proceedingsof a wide-ranging investigation of the uses of science which was undertaken at the direction of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

"When one speaks about the humanistic dimension of science, thought is directed for the most part to the ethical responsibility of scientific research because of its consequences to man," said the Pope in addressing the Academy prior to its work."The problem is real and has given rise to
constant concern on the part of the Magisterium of the Church, especially during the second part of the twentieth century."

The Pope also placed the scientific enterprise in a spiritual context."In [Christ], the Church recognizes the ultimate conditions allowing scientific progress to be also real human progress," he said."They are the conditions of charigy and service, those which ensure that all men have an authentically human life, capable of rising up to the Absolute, opening up not only to the wonders of nature but also to the mystery of God."

Placing all of science and its many disciplines and discoveries within this context was an arduous task and in the end, the Academy came also to address agricultural biotechnology. Nicola Cabibbo, the president of the Academy, presented "Study Document on the Use of ŒGenetically Modified Food Plants‚ to Combat Hunger in the World." The document represents the consensus of the Academy and a committee specifically formed to address the topic.

"During the closed session of the Academy held during the Plenary Session many Academicians expressed deep concern at the distorted way in which recent scientific results, and in particular those relating to genetically improved plant varieties, haved been presented to the public," said Cabbibo at the outset of his Introductory Note, adding that the study document"expresses the concerns of the scientific community about the sustainability of present agricultural practices and the certainty that new techniques will be effective."

Here are some of the recommendations of the study document:

"Agriculture as it is currently practiced is unsustainable, as is indicated by the massive losses of topsoil and agricultural land that have occurred over the past few decates, as well as by the unacceptable consequences of massive applications of pesticides throughout most of the world. Techniques to genetically modify crop plants can make important contributions to the solution of this common problem."

"There is nothing intrinsic about genetic modification that would cause food products to be unsafe."

"Special efforts should be made to provide poor farmers in the developing world with access to improved crop plants and to encourage and finance research in developing countries. At the same time, means should be found to create incentives for the production of vegetable strains suitable to the needs of developing countries."

"This process [of genetic engineering] is very specific and avoids the inclusion of genes that are undesirable... Even though such strains are considered to be genetically modified (GM), the same label could be applied equally appropriately to all strains that have been modified
genetically by human activities˜a process that owes its success to selection for desirable properties.

"The genes being transferred express proteins that are natural, not man-made. The changes made alter an insignificantly small proportion of the total number of genes in the host plant... in contrast, classical cross-breeding methods often generated very large, unidentified changes in
the selected strains."

"There is nothing wrong or unnatural about the movement of genes between plant species."

"There are many opportunities to use this new technology to improve not only the quantity of food produced but also its quality. This is illustrated most clearly in the recent development of what is called 'golden rice'..."

"Genetically modified plants can be an important component of efforts to improve yields on farms otherwise marginal because of limiting conditions such as water shortages, poor soil, and plant pests."

"Genetically modified plants currently in use have already greatly reduced the use of [pesticides and herbicides], with great ecological benefits. It is expected that such benefits will be significantly enhanced as research and development efforts continue."

"Risk cannot be avoided, but it can be minimized. The long-term aim is to develop plants that can produce larger yields of healthier food under sustainable conditions with an acceptable level of risk."

To access the remainder of the report, massing over 500 pages, visit http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical

acdscien/own/ documents/rc_acdsci_doc_190999
(go to No. 099)

Interview with Bishop Sgreccia, Vice President of the Academy for Life

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 13, 2000 (ZENIT.org).- Biogenetics' new frontiers pose new hopes and fears, a debate that materializes in endless discussions on issues like genetically modified corn or tomatoes.

In order to clarify the moral implications of biotechnology, ZENIT interviewed Bishop Elio Sgreccia, director of the Bioethics Institute of Rome's University of the Sacred Heart, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and co-author of the book "Animal and Vegetable Biotechnology" New Frontiers and New Responsibilities" ("Biotecnologie animali e vegetali: nuove frontiere e nuove responsabilità"), published by the Vatican Press.

--Q: There are those who speak of biotechnology as the millennium's monster. What is the Pontifical Academy for Life's view on biotechnology?

--Bishop Sgreccia: Biotechnology must be seen in its ability to improve, develop, and complement nature. For example, it is possible to make biological agents, constructed biotechnologically, which act in decontaminating the sea from oil stains and transforming biomasses and refuse.

Biotechnology must also be seen in its capacity to improve vegetable products and increase certain animal resources to foster progress in developing countries.

--Q: Some believe the multinationals want to use biotechnological resources to maintain positions of power over the market and guarantee themselves greater profits in relation to underdeveloped countries.

--Bishop Sgreccia: These are risks and dangers that are part of human egotism, which must be controlled and uprooted ethically and legally.

However, is it possible and wise to try to improve cultivation so that it can sink roots even in difficult terrain; to improve the quality of the production of fruits and vegetables; to increase the production of meat to feed whole populations; to eliminate harmful agents, in plots of land, through biotechnology. Our objective should be to eliminate risks and damages and, at the same time, increase advantages.

We certainly are not dreamers who blindly approve any biotechnological use. There are very specific limits, which must be respected. It is true that man can use animals and vegetables for his food and for his safety. But it is also true that he cannot do what he feels like indiscriminately. This is why limits have been established, for example, in regard to the creation of new species.

--Q: Another controversial point is conservation of biodiversity. It has been said that genetically modified products will eliminate all previous varieties.

--Bishop Sgreccia:
In fact, biotechnology is useful in the field of biodiversity, because we can conserve seeds and animal gametes and, through artificial reproduction, intervene wherever there is danger of extinction. Technology that selects and reinforces a species is also able to conserve and protect species from extinction that should be protected.

--Q: Some believe that all technological discoveries are contaminating by their very nature.

--Bishop Sgreccia: Technology is a means and, as such, we must know how to use it. Technology results from exploration of the human body and the universe. Through [the use of] computers and electronics we do no more than boost our neurons.

If this is the creative, anthropological origin of technology, ethics, which stems from it, is no more than placing it at the service of human life, integrity, the health of man, [and] the balanced conservation of forces and elements of the world, ranging from air and water, to animals and vegetables. It is our responsibility to regulate the faucets; we have the tools to do so, we are lacking responsibility and, perhaps, the necessary harmony to do it.

--Q: The authors of the Earth's Charter say that traditional religions, especially Christianity, are too anthropocentric. This would be the reason for the lack of attention to the natural world in the history of humanity.

--Bishop Sgreccia: The Christian religion offers fundamental principles for respect of the environment, not only insofar as it relates to animals or vegetables, but also to inanimate creation, insofar as everything is conceived as a gift of God, placed in man's hands with the command to take care of it and govern it.

St. Francis is often quoted in this area; but I insist on saying that attention must also be paid to the Benedictine tradition, which has kept our European regions from ecological disaster, by teaching and practicing an agriculture that still gives fruits, by controlling rivers, looking after forests, refining agricultural techniques. The Benedictine tradition of "ora et labora," which sees in work a form of praying, in respect for the Creator, is an example of care for the environment.

Another fundamental point of Christianity is the incarnation of Jesus, Son of God, who, by becoming man creates fraternity among men. We Catholics make every effort to create ties of fraternity with less fortunate peoples, with the poor, the weak, with the victims of underdevelopment. What stronger foundation is there to impede the exploitation of man against man, and of man against creation?

Interview With Professor Giuseppe Bertoni

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 13, 2000 (ZENIT.org).- The question of genetically modified foods and their ethical repercussions has become the focus of a study by the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican institution established by John Paul II.

The results of this study were published in 1999 in a book, written in Italian, entitled "Animal and Vegetable Biotechnology: New Frontiers and New Responsibilities" ("Biotecnologie animali e vegetali, nuove frontiere e nuove responsabilità"). The book was written by several authors and published by the Vatican Press.

One of the authors is Giuseppe Bertoni, professor at the Zootechnical Institute of the Faculty of Agriculture of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Piacenza.

In statements to ZENIT, Bertoni criticized "the catastrophic sensationalism with which the press has handled biotechnology." In particular, he rejected "the idea of seeing scientific progress as something to fear."

"It is true that ethical limits must be observed," he said, "but it is especially true that the reality of biotechnology must be made known; this is why I say that if you know biotechnology, you do not fear it."

Given the objections expressed by some environmentalists, Bertoni explained that "the so-called sale of seeds that later cannot be reused because they are sterile is not a problem, given that after 50 years the present type of corn seed is not reusable because it does not guarantee the benefits of the first generation. Instead, transgenic corn, which is resistant to ... plagues, is an enviable product because it produces more and does not need chemical treatments to defend itself against parasites."

Bertoni explained how "vaccinations are an example of how biotechnology applied to medicine brings benefits."

In regard to animal cloning, the professor said that this "could finally resolve the problem of species in the process of extinction. It is being tried with the panda bear, and might be applied to other species."

International Support:

  1. International Organizations
  2. Africa
  3. Asia
  4. Europe
  5. North America
  6. Latin America
  7. Oceania

International Organizations

- Food and Agricultural Organization
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
- World Health Organization
- United Nations Development Programme
- United Nations Environment Programme
- Third World Academy of Sciences

- Agenda 21
- Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
- Vatican Pontifical Academy on Life

- International Council for Science Union

- International Life Sciences Institute


- International Society of African Scientists
- United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
- Africabio
- South African Minister Ngubane's statement at WSSD
- National Biotechnology Strategy for South Africa
- Former Kenyan President Moi's letter to US President Clinton

- Nigerian President Obasanjo's Statement


- Asian Development Bank
- Chinese Academy of Sciences
- Indian National Academy of Sciences
- National Academy of Science and Technology (Philippines)
- Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir's Speech at BioMalaysia 2002
- Policy Statement on Biotechnology (Philippines)


- Royal Society of London

- Prime Minister Blair's speech

- European Commission

- French Academy of Science

North America


United States of America

- American Medical Association
- American Society for Microbiology
- National Academy of Sciences
- National Research Council
- American Society of Plant Biologists
- Federation of Animal Science Societies
- American Midwest Farmers

  • American Agri-Women
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Chicken Council
  • National Corn Growers Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Milk Producers Federation
  • National Potato Council
  • National Turkey Federation
  • United Soybean Board


- Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee
- The Royal Society of Canada (The Canadian Academy of the Sciences and Humanities)
- Industry Canada (Federal Department of Industry)
- The 1998 Canadian Biotechnology Strategy: A Ongoing Renewal Process

Latin America

- Brazilian Academy of Sciences
- Mexican Academy of Sciences


- New Zealand Royal Commission

- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization
- Australia New Zealand Food Authority
- Australian Biotechnology: A National Strategy (2000)

- National Farmers' Federation

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