Villanova University recently convened a group of internationally-renowned experts in the fields of food security, genetic engineering and plant diversity for an academic symposium exploring 19th century Augustinian Friar Gregor Mendel’s research on plant hybridization in connection with the food supply challenges confronting the planet today.
Held on March 15, 2019, the third bi-annual Mendel Symposium, titled “Gregor Mendel: From Hybridization to GMOs,” was free and open to the public and the Villanova Community and focused on how the scientific processes and ideas used by Mendel still contribute to scientific understanding of genetic modification.
The event kicked off with a welcome from Villanova’s The Rev. Kail Ellis, OSA, PhD, Assistant to the President, Mendel Symposium Director, Mendel Committee Chair, Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Associate Professor of Political Science.
“The Mendel Symposium was designed as an interdisciplinary discussion of the influence of Gregor Mendel and his groundbreaking research and the challenges that are confronting our planet today, with the goal of increasing the public’s understanding of these issues,” Ellis said.
Discussions were moderated by Villanova faculty members Angela DiBenedetto, PhD, Associate Professor of Biology; Frank Galgano, PhD, Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment; and Kel Wieder, PhD, Professor of Biology.
Panelists included Alan McHughen, PhD, CE Biotechnology Specialist and Geneticist at University of California, Riverside; Paul B. Thompson, PhD, W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food & Community Ethics, Michigan State University; and Tiziana Ulian, PhD, Senior Research Leader of Diversity & Livelihoods, Natural Capital and Plant Health Department at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Galgano presented for scheduled panelist Amy Richmond, PhD, Professor of Geography, United States Military Academy, West Point, who was unable to attend.
McHughen began the first session, “GMOs and the Food Supply,” with a discussion on how genetically-engineered products are produced and fit in to people’s daily lives while addressing common misconceptions about GMOs and the pressing need to plan for diminishing food resources as the global population increases. Thompson then addressed the ethical debates surrounding genetic engineering, as well as the disconnect between biotechnology and agrarian philosophy.
The second session of the Symposium, “Food Security, Economics and the Common Good,” featured a talk from Galgano about how environmental insecurity, including the environmental variability and extremes stemming from climate change, intersects with food insecurity, urban development and poverty to trigger regional and global conflicts.
Ulian continued with the third session, “Seed Banks—Preserving Biodiversity,” during which she provided an overview of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, one of the largest and most diverse collections of plant and fungal specimens—living and preserved—in the world. Ulian then discussed how seed banking and the use of plant diversity, including crop wild relatives and wild edible plants, enhances global food security and creates a more sustainable delivery of the food supply at the local level.
The symposium also explored how Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home calls Catholics to respond in stewardship to the use of the earth’s bounty for the common good; through beholding and upholding its integral ecology, a responsibility is realized to all creation.
Founded by the Augustinian Order in 1842, Villanova University plays a key role in sustaining Mendel’s legacy and caring for the planet in the face of global challenges. The University’s science center is named for Mendel, and, since 1929, prominent scientists, including several Nobel Prize recipients, have been honored with the University’s Mendel Medal, given in recognition of outstanding scientific achievement accompanied by religious conviction.