Vatican City The Vatican stepped into the charged debate over genetically modified food on Monday, convening a conference with a view to possibly endorsing biotech crops as a means of alleviating world hunger.
However, some participants questioned whether the symposium would treat the issue equitably, saying it was stacked with speakers in the pro-biotech camp, reflecting the views of its organizer, Cardinal Renato Martino.
Martino, who has frequently spoken out about the potential benefits of biotech foods, or GMOs, opened the two-day gathering -- called "GMO: Threat or Hope" -- by acknowledging the technology's far-reaching implications.
"We are fully aware that the stakes are high and delicate," he said, citing the divide in public opinion, commercial interests and ethical questions involved, as well as "the difficulty in defining scientifically a material that is subject to evolving research."
The Vatican has not said when it will announce its position on GMOs, which experts say would have a profound impact on the debate.
A Vatican endorsement would likely draw praise from the United States, where biotech companies have been at the forefront of extolling the virtues of GMOs, which can be made to resist insects or disease.
But it would no doubt ruffle feathers in Europe, which has imposed a moratorium on growing or importing GMOs because of fears about the environmental and heath risks, and in African countries such as Zambia, which has rejected biotech food aid.
Dr. Margaret Mellon, a speaker at the symposium and a director of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said she was concerned the benefits of biotechnology for easing world hunger were overblown and might not outweigh the risks.
The issue of poverty and hunger is a major concern for the Vatican, which rejects arguments that limiting family size by using contraception is one way to improve food security in the developing world.