As Catholic cardinals selected Pope Francis in Rome on Wednesday, we watched an ancient church at its most medieval: obedient to tradition, cloaked in secrecy, and waiting for white smoke. The papal conclave appears positively anti-modern.

Yet in another sense, the Vatican stands in the vanguard of science and technology. It’s one of the world’s strongest supporters of genetically modified crops.

Many of us are still trying to learn about the new pontiff. We know a few things already. He is not only a man of faith, but also science–a chemist, by training. He’s from Argentina, whose farmers rely heavily on GM crops. And he professes a concern for the poor, who have the most to gain from 21st-century food production.

Farmers of all religious persuasions should take comfort from these views. “He will be able to better understand the Latin American continent–not only the poverty and the exclusion, but also the wealth of these lands,” said Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, according to the Wall Street Journal.

 

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I’m a cradle Catholic. Maybe you’ve heard our inside joke: I didn’t choose it; I was forced into it.

Growing up, I went to Catholic school. I’ve given my own kids a Catholic education, at least when I could afford it–and when I couldn’t, I’ve regretted the result. Our family eats fish on Fridays, even when it’s not Lent.

Catholicism has been an essential part of my life.

And that’s why I was so heartened several years ago to learn of my church’s stance on GM food.

In 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which advises the Holy See on scientific questions, organized a conference on farm biotechnology. It soon came out with a ringing endorsement: “There is a moral imperative to make the benefits of genetically engineered technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them, and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health, and protect their environment.”

Ever since I started growing biotech crops more than a decade ago, I’ve believed much the same thing. I saw the outstanding benefits of these plants with my own eyes: All of sudden, we were able to produce more food on less land. This was great for farmers, consumers, and conservation.