With a terrible delay, which doesn’t really fit a blog, I wish to share with you some reflections on the last Gaetano Salvatore Lecture. Marc von Montagu, Belgian Geneticist and co-discoverer of the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, is one of the pioneers of European agrobiotechnology. Beyond the scientific aspect of the technology, van Montagu was also much involved on the technological commercial side, as founder and head of two biotech start-up companies in the late Eighties and Nineties (see http://www.ipbo.ugent.be/aboutus/mvm.html). It is not difficult to imagine what the position of the man on the Agro-tech issue could have been. It was, indeed, a very one-sided, straight forward sermon, centred on the great potential of genetic engineering for the future of human societies and on the risks that might come from opposing or boycotting these new developments. Not a pale shade of doubt on the eventual risks that might arise from heavy and continuous human intervention on the environment.
What was surprising to me, given the one-sidedness of the speech, is that I actually found it almost totally convincing. Part of it must be due to the skill and experience of the speaker, as well as to my own ignorance. But I want to share with you some points that I found most compelling. I will do it in a rather unilateral fashion. I hope this will stimulate some discussion.
1. scientific evidence and precautionary principle
This is the most well known and “fashionable” issue, and also the most controversial. Ever since GMOs first appeared, all sorts of doubts and opposition have been aired by the press, by concerned citizens, political parties and movements. This movement first grew very strong in the UK, than in Continental Europe and, since recent times, is spreading wide in the US. Dr. Van Montagu in his lecture strongly objected to the almost universal value that the so called “precautionary principle” has acquired in the course of recent history. As a matter of fact, he stated, the presumed evidence on the environmental hazard (especially for the reduction of biodiversity) is overestimated. The only example I find in my notes is related to the problem of the “strong” engineered crops taking over the “natural” ones. To this, Dr. Van Montagu objected that it is difficult for a crop that has been designed for culture to spread over and survive on its own or, at least, to be so greatly successful in the outer world as to get rid of the “natural” competitors. To this I dare add that the very concept of “precaution” is still widely debated in the scientific and bioethical community. Moreover, I wonder what is the function of such a restriction when it only applies to limited parts of the globe.
We Europeans are very proud of our GMO(-almost)-free agriculture. Still, we buy huge quantities of gm products from abroad. Most of the soy that is being traded nowadays comes from GM germlines. The same could be said of our beloved Italian hard wheat: most of the sorts of this cereal we use today come from the Gamma field in Casaccia (Roma), where they were engineered by means of radiation in the Sixties. This takes us to the second point, namely:
2. who leads the game – and whose nature are we protecting?
The question regarding “who leads the game” is strictly related to that regarding the obstacles to experimentation raised by the precaution-oriented legislation. I must confess that this was the point I found most convincing, although one can well see its difficulties and the dangers it entails. The argument runs as follows: 1. one of the main objections to green biotech is that it is dominated by huge multinational food industries (mainly US, but also European with bases in America, as Unilever), whose main interest cannot possibly be very far from making profit; 2. this entails the interest to keep the customers in a state of dependance, which means 3. that the poor and backward countries, that need to improve their productivity to fight hunger, run the risk of being completely dependent on the private industry. vM’s objection to this is interesting. The argument (as I can see from my notes) runs as follows: SMEs cannot simply afford entering the Agrobiotech business, because the security requirements are so strict to raise experimentation costs beyond their possibilities. As things stand, says vM, the present regulation cooperates with the multinationals to keep the market closed. This is of course a major obstacle for finding new commercial and political solutions to a problem that, together with water management, is the most central to the future of mankind.
Is it possible that a more relaxed legislation allow new actors (SMEs, smaller States, consortia) to enter the game, bringing in a new logics and a new way to deal with this issue.
For medical research there already exist attempts to find new political-economical settlements to subtract relevant parts of the to the private sector: think of the Cuban biomedical industry, or of
The role of Europe in this process is central. In my opinion, we cannot expect a culture based on free initiative and free market to provide different examples than free-competing hyper-powerful multinationals. This is no critique, I see it as a matter of fact. In the US there is no room for a direct intervention of the Administration beyond setting the rules. Europe has a different culture, and a different history. It is not understood that a European agro-biotech industry would be different, but the represent state of the regulations makes it simply impossible to assess it.
While Europe is busy protecting its own environment, the US and a number of Asian States, which are almost completely deregulated in this field, have gained a leading position, and are imposing their models. It seems at least difficult to me to gain a victory without competing.
My opinion is that the acceptance of the biotech (as well as the biomedical) challenge is a political fact. The main question, as I see it is: how much do we trust the present political and scientific authorities, especially in Europe? The answers can vary, but the question is by no means trivial. It is very important to ask ourselves wether we find a reason for hope in the present scientific and technological development or, to the contrary, we think it unavoidable that the scientific-technological dominion of a small part of the Western society (the big biotech multinationals) will be simply powered to the level of Imperialism by the new biotech tools.
The answer cannot be simple and straight, but the question must be taken very seriously. Acting in a risky business like this can be very dangerous. But the costs and risks of non-action must be considered as well.
3. what will we do of our biotech experts?
This final point I introduce with some hesitation. It was not part of the Lecture. It came to my mind only later. Since the 1987 Italian Referendum that banned Atomic Energy Plants, our engineering and nuclear physics faculties have gone on producing emigrants. Moreover, a number of research fields (including biology) that were scientifically or financially tied to nuclear research, have suffered from its crisis. Now we all agree that biotechnology and basic biological research are one of the most important avenues of the future development of science. Shall we go on training good researchers whose only destiny is to emigrate, because they cannot do here what they were trained for?
website on GM soy
Fabio de Sio