Blinded by genes

Blinded by genes

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When the "secret of life" was unveiled fifty years ago, there were high expectations that this memorable discovery would give us the key to understanding the laws of inheritance ... and the power to change them. Fifty years later, many believe that we have reached that point.

The scientific community this year celebrated the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure and function of DNA. There were a lot of meetings, conferences and special publications. When the "secret of life" was unveiled fifty years ago, there were high expectations that this memorable discovery would give us the key to understanding the laws of inheritance ... and the power to change them. Fifty years later, many believe that we have reached that point. Today scientists are able to move genes - and the inherited traits they encode - with apparent ease between species, families, and kingdoms.

Watson and Crick's interpretation of how genetic information is transferred and transmitted is simple and straightforward: DNA is the master molecule that contains all the genetic information of any living being - be it a bacterium, an animal or a human being - and regulates its expression in the body and its transmission to the next generation. Heredity is a simple and unidirectional process, with DNA as the master molecule transmitting and directing the biological functions of all living things. The creators of this theory coined the "Central Dogma", and this Dogma is still the backbone of molecular biology today. It is also the foundation on which the multibillion-dollar genetic engineering industry has been built.
If genes form the universal code for life, they can surely be inserted through a slot into plants, animals, and - yes, why not? - humans, to produce the desired effect. Scientists began work on developing techniques for gene transfer. In this way, we now have pigs with genes for cows producing bovine growth hormones, plants with genes for bacteria producing natural pesticides, and bacteria with human genes for producing insulin. So if the trick works, what is the problem?

The problem is that the trick does not work. Or at least it doesn't do it the way it should. As Barry Commoner explains on page 6 of the July 2003 issue of Seedling, the incompleteness of the Central Dogma became frighteningly clear when the decoding of the human genome was finally published in 2001. It shows that the entire human genome consists of 30,000 genes, less than a third of the number originally calculated taking into account the number of different proteins and inherited traits that humans have. Therefore, we have more proteins than genes. If this is the case, what gives the instructions for the construction of proteins that do not correspond to a gene? The only logical conclusion is that each gene is responsible for a full range of different proteins and traits and / or that there are other regulatory mechanisms in protein production.

Recent research has shown that both conclusions are true. It is now known that the proteins themselves help define what other proteins they are going to make by influencing their three-dimensional structure. It has also been established that there are various types of genetic interactions in the cell, including those where the protein feeds back information to the DNA. Recently, it was also established that the parts of DNA that apparently do not code for the production of any protein (and therefore arrogantly called "junk DNA" by the decoders of the human genome), produce molecules that interfere with the production of proteins and are, consequently, an essential part of the cellular regulatory system.

The death of Dogma?

The Central Dogma was used to explain the basic workings of DNA 50 years ago, but in light of recent research it is totally out of date in the areas of molecular biology, cell physiology, and other scientific disciplines. This conclusion should have dealt a devastating and fatal blow to Central Dogma on its 50th anniversary. We should have witnessed a challenging discussion among scientists about how to move from here - how to further our understanding of the complexities of cell function and the laws of heredity. And we should have witnessed a definitive and collective funeral of the Central Dogma, which was long overdue. But this did not happen. Why?

Because there is a multibillion dollar industry closely attached to the old Dogma of 50 years ago as the fundamental principle on which to generate its income. Genetic engineering - the transfer of genes from one organism to another - only makes sense if one believes in the exclusive supremacy of DNA, in the domain of genes. It only makes sense if all the other scientific observations that complicate the hereditary process are considered interesting but irrelevant. And it only makes sense if you are prepared to view the thousands of "abnormalities" resulting from genetic engineering as the consequence of the usual margin of error in research, rather than an indication that something may be fundamentally wrong with the theory.

Private interests prevail

If the main goal of research is not to promote scientific knowledge but to make money, the complexities in the workings of genes are just inopportune distractions. Companies involved in genetic engineering need to be able to assure customers and administrative authorities that the transgenic crops and animals they sell will do exactly what they were designed to do: tolerate herbicides, kill insect pests, or produce specific molecules. They need a theoretical foundation that explains precisely - and predictably - how the new genes will behave in the new host. They need the Central Dogma. This is probably the main reason why the growing evidence challenging the simplistic "one gene, one trait" logic is still being ignored by most of the scientific establishment.

At the time that Watson and Crick published their discovery, the vast majority of plant breeders were working in the public sector. This situation has changed dramatically in recent decades. In the mid-1990s, there were twice as many active breeders in the commercial sector in the United States as in universities and government agencies combined. This imbalance is rapidly shifting to the private sector: in the same period that the public sector lost 2.5 plant breeders per year, the private sector witnessed a growth of 32 scientists per year (1) - a process that has since only occurred. accelerated.

Meanwhile, the corporations behind genetic engineering moved into high revolutions. A tremendous wave of corporate concentration since the mid-1990s has resulted in a small handful of giant corporations - Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dupont - now controlling the bulk of all cash crop research and development. This shift has had a major impact on agricultural research in general, with scientists in public and private research seeking the attractive shortcuts offered by genetic engineering, to the detriment of conventional plant breeders.

Most people in the private sector are quick to point out that genetic engineering needs plant breeding to deliver seeds to farmers, and this is just one tool in the breeders' toolbox. But the gap between the world of genetic engineering and that of plant breeding is constantly widening, and plant breeders are becoming an endangered species. Funding for conventional plant breeders is declining rapidly, especially in industrialized countries. "Plant breeding is getting by the wayside for not being sexy enough," says Greg Traxler, a US agricultural economist. (2) Currently it is the combination of a brutal privatization process and a reckless bet on the outdated Central Dogma that diverts the bulk of intellectual and financial investments in crop improvement towards genetic engineering.

The adoption, increasingly, of strict regimes of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) - especially in industrialized countries - has been the crucial factor facilitating this process. The introduction of plant variety protection regimes in the 1970s and the granting of patents on life forms in the 1990s - both a cause and a consequence of the privatization process - transformed genes into commodities by allowing companies to own them. and monopolize them. Initially applauded by many plant breeders as due recognition of their hard work, their mood is changing as the consequences are clearly seen: "Protection for plant varieties was the death knell for public plant breeding programs." Now admits Michael Gale of the John Innes Center, Great Britain's Public Institute for Plant Science Research. (3)

The situation has reached such a point that even highly respected conservative institutions like the Royal Society - Britain's National Academy of Sciences - are raising the alarm. In presenting their report on the impact of IPRs on scientific development, they denounce the "gold rush mentality" that currently dominates genetic research. (4) The new advertising slogan for molecular geneticists appears to be "Who gets there first, gets the gene." In this climate of rampant privatization, monopoly control, and ownership rights over the genome, scientists seem to have lost interest or the ability to incorporate the most recent scientific developments into their thinking. None of them seem to acknowledge that the drive for GM agriculture is based on an outdated theory of the laws of inheritance.

Solving the problem of hunger

With flawed scientific foundations for their endeavor and hardly any practical results to show, the gene giants urgently needed an ideological base to defend their investments in genetic engineering. They found it in the approximately 800 million hungry people every day. As out of nowhere - the role of the private sector in agricultural research in developing countries has traditionally been close to zero (5) - they are now fighting hell-bent on conquering markets and agricultural fields in the Third World for GM agriculture. . The argument used is that today we finally have a great new tool - genetic engineering - to help fight hunger.

Not a week goes by without some glitzy conference in some southern capital city bringing together policy makers and national scientists to discuss how to benefit the poor from this new revolution. Invariably, a small army of scientists from Monsanto, Syngenta, or some research center in the United States or Europe paints a rosy international picture. National scientists tell the tale of how genetic engineering should be applied at the national level. Complementing this, a bewildering myriad of new acronyms, (ABSP, ABSF, BIO, ISAAA… .the list goes on) that represent institutions founded by industrial interests created specifically to impose genetic engineering in the South.

Solving the problem of hunger has never been the business of the transnational corporations that are behind genetic engineering today, and it never will be. It is enough to simply remember where and how GM crops are being used - and who is behind them - to see what the stakes are (see box). The scenario that emerges is that of a handful of extremely powerful corporations growing less than a handful of crops in a few countries, mostly for animal feed and export markets. This is hardly the scenario that addresses the complexity of the world food problem.

Public agricultural research institutions around the world are increasingly being attracted to these developments, which is presented as a worrying trend. Squeezed by budget-cutting and structural adjustment programs, they are increasingly converging toward genetic engineering. The International Center for Agricultural Research - the men of action and agitators behind the Green Revolution - are now looking for a place to camouflage themselves in the genetic turbulence. Its stated mandate is to address hunger around the world.

But after decades of failure to address the concerns and needs of the farmers and peasants who produce most of the food in the South, and after many years of budget cuts from their donors, the only chance they have left it's making deals with corporations to get a slice of the biotech pie. By doing this, they risk not only responding even less and less pertinently to the needs of southern farmers, but also becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.

· The situation of GM crops in 2002:
· More than 90% of commercialized GM crops are represented by only 4 crops: canola, soybeans, cotton and corn - most of which are grown for export, not for food.
More than 90% of commercial GM crops in the world are being grown in only 4 countries: the United States, Canada, China and Argentina - used for the most part (with the possible exception of China) for export and the market of cattle feeding.
· Virtually all commercial GM crops come from a Monsanto corporation - which, along with a few other gene giants (Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow), dominates most of the world's GM crop research. · Virtually all of these Crops are designed for only two traits: herbicide resistance and incorporation of the toxic Bt gene - presumably to ward off insects.

The same is happening with the United Nations agency responsible for food and agriculture in the world: FAO. Traditionally a place where governments of developing countries had a political platform to discuss matters of their concern, this agency is rapidly succumbing to pressure from industrialized governments and, likewise, corporations (see box above this page). FAO seems more focused on organizing dazzling biotechnology conferences, co-organized with major chemical companies, rather than researching sustainable alternatives. FAO is increasingly becoming a central intermediary for the entry into developing countries of genetic engineering and the corporations that drive it.

A similar trend can be seen at the national level in many countries of the South, where agricultural research institutions - stripped of cash and recognition - are rapidly entering into partnership agreements with foreign research partners and corporations. Who can blame them for getting caught up in the glamorous world of genetic engineering where funding is plentiful and international recognition is assured?

Aside from sidestepping the real causes of world hunger - and diverting political attention and funding away from them - these initiatives that push genetic engineering are doing something even more alarming: they drive into the heart of the world's centers of diversity farming a potentially dangerous technology based on an outdated genetic theory.

"No particular organization is capable of taking responsibility for the challenge of feeding a planet of 840 million hungry people. The public and private sectors must join forces with national and international organizations. We must be willing to share responsibilities, risks and resources to achieve shared goals. There is now both a moral imperative and an economic obligation to build a collective coalition, where international organizations, governments and the private sector work hand in hand to bridge / bridge the gap between rich and poor "Jacques Diouf, Director General of FAO. FAO Press published June 2003.

Expanding focus

We cannot avoid the conclusion that the marriage between a simplistic and outdated concept of genetics and powerful capital driven by a conglomerate of industrial interests is rapidly moving us away from the efforts needed to develop solutions with farming communities and policy makers to address the problem. food.

We need to refocus. We need to go beyond our obsession with genes. A growing number of scientists are arguing that it is time to move away from the Mendelian breeding and pedigree approach, which focuses on uniform varieties passing specific genes to the next generation and eliminating others. Instead, the starting point should be the agricultural field, where the desired traits are incorporated into all the plants of a crop, in all their genetic diversity. The entire population is examined to select a small number of plants with the best traits to be used in the next breeding cycle.

This "population improvement" approach - which is actually something that farmers have been doing for millennia - is often considered a nightmare by industrial plant breeders who are using uniform pure lines to work. But this is an approach that provides durable genetic improvement - more durable than approaches that focus solely on genes, whether they are genetically modified or not. And it's a no-cost approach. Farmers don't need a company to do the breeding for them, they can do it in their own fields.

One of the pioneers in this field was Melaku Worede, who in the 1980s guided the Ethiopian National Center for Genetic Resources to an innovative approach that consisted of giving farmers their genebank materials back to experiment with. .
This had spectacular results. (6) Recently, scientists have further developed their arguments against gene-only breeding approaches, because of the role they play in the dramatic increase in pesticide use around the world. Farmers in Mexico managed to triple bean yields using basic population improvement methodologies in just two breeding cycles, and were able to eliminate the use of pesticides in the process. (7). The key element in this strategy was protecting diversity in the farmers' field and working with it there.

But the question we need to ask ourselves really goes beyond what kind of plant breeding to apply. It is about addressing the full range of issues facing farmers - in all their complexity - in their food production systems. In most cases, the challenges they face have nothing to do with agronomy, but rather with access to land, markets and credit, or are framed in terms of work or gender aspects. But when agronomic issues come into play, it is generally not the genetic potential of crops and animals that is the biggest limiting factor. Instead, farmers talk about soil fertility, agroecology, integrated crop management, or water retention and supplies.

Genetic myopia

Focusing on genetics has prevented many scientists and policy makers from seeing other approaches and technologies for working on productivity problems in the field. This "genetic fixation" has dominated the view of agricultural development since the Green Revolution - and is now being strengthened by the hype around genetic engineering. We are blinded by genes.

Probably a better description of this way of thinking is the expression "genetic trap". It has led us to a situation where molecular genetics has become the King of Science - and biotechnology the Mother of all Technologies - to the detriment of many other necessary scientific disciplines and technological approaches. Go and visit one of the world's agricultural research institutes in Kampala, Los Baños, Lima or Wageningen.

Talk to people who work on soil fertility, rotation techniques, crop ecology, multiculture, integrated pest management, or agricultural systems. You will most likely hear them lament bitterly about not being able to keep going, having no staffing, no budget for field work, and no research equipment. If you push them a little bit, you will also hear that they feel that they have no status, that their work is undervalued.

Then cross the field and visit the department of molecular biology or the newly opened division of biotechnology. You will be welcomed by fully stocked laboratory personnel, researchers busy writing for prestigious scientific journals, or running around international conferences. You will probably see large logos and advertisements for one of the big biotech companies in recognition of a project union or financing agreement.

The atmosphere will seep with energy and swim in support. Except where are the agroecologists, soil fertility scientists and researchers in integrated pest management who are probably generating a more relevant contribution to make to farmers in your country. Especially if they work with farmers who use participatory methodologies (see p.3). Hidden from the glamor of genes, this is the place where some of the most spectacular results are being achieved (see box). And this is where, intellectually and scientifically, the most exciting discoveries are being made.

The image that emerges is one of two totally different ways of doing agriculture, of producing the food we eat - one led by corporations and the other led by farmers. There are also two totally opposite ways of supporting this agriculture with research. The gap between them is growing, to the point that there are hardly any contact points any more. We have some important options to make before the foundations of agriculture crumble beyond repair.

Increasing productivity ... sustainability

A few years ago, Jules Pretty and his colleagues at the University of Essex in the UK started an ambitious project to audit progress towards sustainable agriculture around the world. They compiled in a Database 208 cases from 52 countries, involving 9 million farmers and 29 million hectares - all involved in sustainable agriculture projects and experiments. Documentation showed that without genetic engineering or plant breeding institutions, remarkable productivity and sustainability successes can be achieved. Examples include:
· Some 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and vegetable cover crops and livestock integration have doubled corn and wheat yields to 4-5 tons per hectare.
· Some 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras have used regenerative technologies to triple corn yields to 2-2.5 tons per hectare and diversify their highland farms, which has induced local economic growth and stimulated migration from the cities;
· More than 300,000 farmers in southern and western India cultivating in drylands are now using a variety of soil and water management technologies, and have tripled the yield of sorghum and millet to 2-2.5 tonnes per hectare.
Some 200,000 farmers across Kenya, as part of various governmental and non-governmental soil and water conservation and sustainable agriculture programs, have double the yield of their maize to around 2.5-3.3 tons per hectare and a substantial improvement of vegetable production in the dry seasons.
· 100,000 small coffee producers in Mexico who have adopted completely organic methods of production and increased their yield to a large extent.
· One million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China; India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam have started to practice sustainable agriculture, farmers have learned in agricultural field schools about alternatives to pesticides while increasing their yields by about 10%.

Source: Jules Pretty, "Feeding the World" - In: "SPLICE", August / September 1998, Volume 4, Issue 6.
For the full study see: CESOccasionalPapers / SAFErepSUBHEADS.htm

[1] Steven Price, Nature Biotechnology, No. 10, p 938, October 1999.
[2] Jonathan Knight, "Crop improvement: a dying breed," Nature 412, pp 568-570, February 6, 2003.
[3] ibid.
[4] The Royal Society, Keeping Science Open: the effects of intellectual property policy on the conduct of science. London, April 2003.
[5] According to an IFPRI study, on average private agricultural R&D is equivalent to less than 6% of total agricultural R&D. See: PG Pardey and NM Beintema, Slow Magic - Agricultural R&D a Century After Mendel IFPRI, Washington 2001.
[6] Melaku Worede, "Ethiopia: a genebank working with farmers." In: David Cooper et al Growing Diversity, IT publications, London, 1992
[7] Raoul Robinson, Return to Resistance: Breeding Crops to Reduce Pesticide Dependence, IDRC, Canada, 1995. For the case of Mexico, see:

* GRAIN, 2003, Blinded by the gene, Seedling, July 2003, GRAIN

Video: Advanced Genetics (May 2022).


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