Ghanaian cardinal seeks dialogue on hunger
By Larry Dreiling
As debate over biotechnology swirled about him, Roman Catholic Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, went to the recent Borlaug Dialogue at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, seeking just that—dialogue.
While three scientists noted for their work in biotechnology were feted with the World Food Prize for their efforts to eliminate global hunger, protesters against genetically enhanced food and so-called “industrial agriculture” staged an Occupy World Food Prize meeting.
Turkson spoke to both groups and told both they need to engage in conversation and, well, dialogue. He also participated in an interfaith prayer service at a Methodist church.
“The church promotes listening, dialogue, patience, respect for the other, sincerity and even willingness to review one’s own opinion,” Turkson told a Borlaug Dialogue luncheon. “The church encourages, orients and enriches discussion and debate.”
This is particularly important when there are differing opinions, he said.
In the larger of the two Des Moines gatherings at which he spoke, Turkson said research must be done with ethics and a clear long-term vision that respects human dignity and strives for the common good, he said.
“In Catholic thought, nature is neither sacred nor divine, neither to be feared nor to be revered and left untouched,” Turkson said. “Rather, it is a gift offered by the Creator to the human community to be entrusted to the intelligence and moral responsibility of men and women. Therefore it is legitimate for humans with the correct attitude to intervene in nature and make modifications.”
While praising WFP founder Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate credited with saving 1 billion people through the Green Revolution, Turkson wondered aloud why then is there so much displeasure and distrust today, so much skepticism and strong opposition to biotechnology.
“Never before, having accepted an invitation (to a conference), have I received so much mail, some of it urging me to withdraw, a bit of it affirming the value of GMOs, much of it recounting destruction and suffering in relationship with globalized industrial agriculture promoting GMO crops. What can be going wrong, seeing that Pope John Paul II spoke positively about such research?”
Times have also changed, Turkson said, for when John Paul II encouraged genetic research to enhance food production during a prayer service at Iowa’s Living History Farms in 1979, he also clearly stated the parameters within which such research may be carried out.
“Blessed Pope John Paul II was supportive of research in biotechnology to feed the world. Moreover, when he visited Des Moines in 1979, standing in a corn-bedecked fields, he challenged agriculture in America and around the world to ‘foster sustainability of the land and water and plants, and to use the harvest to feed the hungry in the world.’”
The late pontiff, Turkson said, reaffirmed that biotechnological research must be subject to moral principles and values, which respect and realize in its fullness, the dignity of man.
“While (biotechnology) is characterized by beneficial applications in the area of animal and plant biology, very useful for food production, it can also yield to adventurism,” Turkson said. “In the latter case, it can be arbitrary and unjust, especially when it loses sight of the total well-being of the human person. This is why, for John Paul II, it is absolutely necessary to overcome the separation between science and ethics, and to discover their radical unity.”
As times have moved forward, Turkson said a study document prepared for a synod of African bishops in 2009 identified problems on that continent.
“‘The lack of cultivatable land, water, energy, access to credit, agricultural training, local markets, road infrastructures, etc.’ These true problems should not be overlooked or sidestepped by those who promote the planting of genetically modified seeding as the definitive solution,” Turkson said.
Accordingly, Turkson said, the desired dialogue will have to go very deep.
“It will need to include the motivation and vision which guide biological and genetic research and biotechnology; in other words, not only so-called pure research but also the vision and motivation that guide its translation into policies, commerce, agriculture and trade in many different situations around the world,” Turkson said. “And for the dialogue to progress in good faith, all the stakeholders must genuinely be represented and meaningfully take part.”
Agricultural practices that respect human dignity and the common good would include environmental monitoring, regulations, universal access and transparency to consumers, he said, citing the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
“It is hazardous—and ultimately absurd, indeed sinful—to employ biotechnology without the guidance of deeply responsible ethics,” he said.
He also warned of the consequences of denying the most impoverished segments of the population access to the technology.
“Fair ways must be found to share the fruits of research and ensure that developing countries have access to both natural resources and to innovations,” Turkson said. “Otherwise, whole populations can be discriminated against, exploited and deprived of what they rightly should have a share in.”
He concluded the Borlaug Dialogue with a call for conversation.
“All sides of the controversy are using many of the same key phrases such as ‘overcoming hunger’ and ‘sustainable agriculture,’ thus it will only be by mutual and respectful listening, by a genuine desire to learn from the other, indeed from all the stakeholders, that the better and truly enduring sustainable solutions will be found.”
According to a report from Catholic News Service, Turkson encouraged Occupy World Food Prize to have conversation and dialogue with the people with whom they have differences.
The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Christian citizens’ anti-hunger lobby Bread for the World, said at the prayer service that progress has been made to end world hunger and work should continue, the CNS report said.
“This is holy work,” he said.
Beckmann is a 2010 laureate of the World Food Prize.
While in Des Moines for WFP activities, Turkson also met with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and presented the Cardinal Newman Lecture at Drake University.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.