October 5, 2017
Guest post by Roberto Defez, molecular microbiologist at the Institute of Bioscience and BioResources, Italian National Research Council.
Agriculture is at a turning point. Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis (Health) and Phil Hogan (Agriculture) are sitting on two running horses approaching a crossroad. There is no middle road. They have to decide whether to keep research on plant development locked at the larval stadium or accompany the metamorphosis breaking the eggshell and liberating the colourful butterfly of new breeding techniques.
On September 28th, the two Commissioners for Health and for Agriculture organized in Brussels a conference to “listen to any voice” having something to say on the new systems to modulate plant development without transferring new genes from unrelated organisms. These technologies, sometimes called New Breeding Techniques, is actually a diverse toolbox with genome editing (GE or LARVA if easier to remind) as part of it. Some GE techniques, but not all, allow scientists to edit plant DNA to improve and increase new biodiversity and protect poorly competitive orphan local cultivations. Some GE techniques result in the editing of a single letter in the whole DNA book of a living organism which is also exactly, what happens with a natural, spontaneous mutation. The same DNA letter could be changed by GE or by spontaneous mutations and nobody could say where the change derived from. What we call biodiversity is the result of spontaneous mutations in organisms that could, for example, lead from a white cabbage into a green one. Mutations also accumulate in all living organisms. In humans, we have a single new mutation in the germ line each week, 50 new mutations per year. No mutation, no evolution, said Darwin about a century and a half ago. However, it is still hard today to realize that evolution is always in a never-ending action and we are not the immaculate creations in the Eden Garden. In Brussels were gathered many scientists and farmers, politicians and consumer representatives, administrators of small biotech or food companies and of the largest multinational companies or organizations lobbying for their business: for seeds (Monsanto, Pioneer), for environment (Greenpeace, Organics producers) or for agro-pharmaceutical (Syngenta, Bayer or BASF). All the voices were listened to.
The two roads
Younger societies or those from developing countries are more attracted by innovations and new opportunities. Richer and older communities, on the other hand, try to preserve their privileges. Younger UK citizens voted for Brexin, older and rural people voted for Brexit. Europe should decide to be Science-in or Scienxit. An innovative, optimistic and developing society (a Science-in) would allow scientists and farmers to work together and produce the plants we need to reduce water and pesticide use, to reduce soil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and to protect biodiversity, improving food security and safety. Today existing plants cannot do all this for a world asking for more, better, tastier, sustainable and safer food. The speed of climate changes and of parasites spread prevent sufficient productions of high-quality sustainable food. The experience of GMOs is there to show that Europe, though not cultivating GMOs, are importing 92% of the soybean used, mostly from GMOs. Thus, the question is whether we wish to produce in Europe the food we need or we will go ahead importing food with higher safety risks, fewer controls and a huge economic, scientific and environmental deficit. Those who distribute phobic fear on GMOs wish to have GE plants regulated (means prohibited) the same way as GMOs. The Greenpeace strategy is to improve greenhouse gasses emission to keep vegetal science at the larval stadium. The environmental multinational company calls for extending the cultivated soil (thus reducing biodiversity), fight against industrial agriculture (thus increasing import of commodities transported by non-renewable energy sources) and promote organic agriculture. Organics depend upon cattle fosterage for fertilizers. The two main sources are manures (of cattle fed with some 90% genetically modified soybean grown in Brazil or Argentina) or animal powder from the same cattle. In both cases, with impressive use of vegetal protein converted in soil fertilizers, consumption of water and greenhouse gas emission by both heating of slaughter residues and cattle methane emission.
The world to politics
Deciding not to decide is a decision, said the Estonian Mister of Rural Affairs Tarmo Tamm. It would be a decision against Science. European plants can stay hidden at the larval stadium hoping to rejoin sometime the Eden Garden as suggested by the believers of the religion of Nature, or we can bite the apple and liberate the butterfly squeezed inside it. Scientists, media, farmers, small companies or aggressive multinationals are each playing a fight for their life. Angela Merkel will soon have to take the very first decision, slopping the horses in one of the two possible directions. German scientists are playing a leading role in the public debate, saying that genome edited plants with point changes are equal to spontaneous mutations and cannot be regulated with the gallows law against GMOs. The Governmental agency for consumer protection is on the same waveguide. The two German leading multinational companies, Bayer and BASF, share the same opinion. The German Green party is strong against them and their deputies are even organic farmers. Germany is Greenpeace’s first supporting country in the world, with some 70 million euro donated each year. Chancellor Merkel needs to find compromises and each party has to indicate its priorities to reach an equilibrium leading to the new German government. Angela Merkel has a degree in physical chemistry, thus able to evaluate the weight and consequences to go to a Scienxit.