For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: A Catholic Agenda for Action - Pursuing a More Just Agricultural System - Part 4

Emerging Technologies

New agricultural technologies are being developed and used that promise to increase farm productivity, cut costs, create hardier crops, reduce the need for pesticides, and enhance nutrition. Research into a wide range of new agricultural technologies should be pursued, but with caution and prudence. Public investments in research should be expanded, focusing on opportunities to help the world’s poorest people and nations. For example, if new technologies make it possible to successfully grow crops on marginal land and in adverse weather conditions in poor regions of the world, they could contribute significantly to improved nutrition and economic security for the people of those regions. Developed countries also need to assist developing countries in strengthening their capacity to monitor and regulate genetically modified organisms on their own.

Looking beyond research to the actual use of new technologies, we see substantial fears and significant polarization, especially about genetically modified products. Some support the use of genetically modified foods, noting that they are consumed widely in the United States with no apparent negative impacts on human health and the environment. Others believe there has not been enough time to conduct thorough research on the long-term health and environmental effects. We join the Holy See in raising two key concerns: the urgent need to focus new developments in agricultural technology on reducing poverty and hunger, and the importance of ensuring open discussion and participation in decision making regarding the development and use of genetically modified products.9 With these priorities in mind, we believe that use of genetically altered products should proceed cautiously with serious and urgent attention to their possible human, health, and environmental impacts. Even if genetically modified foods are safe to consume, they can still pose environmental risks that must be managed. Scientists in developed countries have emphasized the need to anticipate and manage the possible effects of genetic modification on the environment. Developing countries may need financial and technical assistance in building their capacity to monitor and address the environmental risk associated with genetic engineering.

Debate about genetically modified food aid reflects two key moral questions: Who will decide about the use and availability of these new technologies? And who will benefit from them? Some individuals and countries seek to reject genetically modified goods. They have major concerns about health and environmental risks. They also fear that other crops will be affected by genetically modified seeds, resulting in the loss of some trading partners. We accept their right to assess the risks and to choose to reject these products as long as lives are not put at risk.

Others are concerned that the benefits of new technologies and genetic engineering will not be made widely available. They fear that farmers will become dependent on seeds patented by a few companies, which could provide returns for investors at the expense of producers. Both public and private entities have an obligation to use their property, including intellectual and scientific property, to promote the good of all people. To ensure that the benefits of emerging technologies are widely shared, patents should be granted for the minimum time and under the minimum conditions necessary to provide incentives for innovation. Agricultural products and processes developed over time by indigenous people should not be patented by outsiders without consent and fair compensation. To ensure that poor countries can take advantage of new technologies, strategies and programs will be needed to help transfer these technologies affordably.The driving force in this debate should not be profit or ideology, but how hunger can be overcome, how poor farmers can be assisted, and how people participate in the debate and decisions. (See data box “New Technologies, New Questions: What Are the Opportunities and Problems in New Agricultural Technologies?”)