By Lorna Haynes
The risks associated with the creation of GMOs under strict confinement are very different from the risks of their release into the environment but they are not zero. The labeling of products from genetic manipulation allows the consumer to decide whether to take the risk, if he knows it, but does not protect the environment from the risks.
The Rio Summit affirmed it: humanity faces an unprecedented global environmental crisis, the product of its own ingenuity, economic zeal, and ecological ignorance; it threatens the survival of life on the planet and demands that we learn from our mistakes and adopt a sustainable way of living that recognizes our dependence on the ecosystem of which we are a part. Sustainability is an ethical concept: it means the moral obligation to use the planet's resources in such a way that future generations enjoy the same environmental and quality of life.
Precisely at this moment, man has discovered how to alter the very essence of living organisms, forever discarding the concept of "the natural order" of things, replacing it with what? The problem is that we don't know. Genetic manipulation allows creating new living beings, capable of reproducing, whose release to the environment is irreversible. It cannot be predicted how these beings will interact with the ecosystem or what all the consequences will be over time and space. Genetic manipulation is not at all like, as its promoters sometimes imply, traditional bio-technologies, such as fermentation, which make use of natural processes: on the contrary, it is about violating that "natural order" that from the origin of life on the planet has ruled evolution. It constitutes a change of planetary scope whose implications are transcendental. One must ask: what circumstance could justify an intervention of this magnitude? Apparently such considerations are neither of concern nor obstacle to scientists or corporations in their quest to create organisms with any combination of characteristics, recombining genes like children playing "LEGO," without evaluating their risks.
Risk means the possibility of a dangerous event. The severity of the risk increases with the danger and the probability of its occurrence. Risks, they tell us, accompany all technological development and the risks must be weighed against the benefits that technology brings. But how to weigh benefits and risks? Everyone has their own values and can give different evaluations. Therefore, it is necessary to establish the ethical principles that should govern the conduct. As individuals we put limits on the risks we are willing to take and as a society we must put limits on the risks to which we expose our fellow human beings and, even from a purely anthropocentric point of view, to the biosphere. A distinction must be made between individual risk and public risk, individual decisions and collective consequences. If the risk of an act is limited to the involvement of the actor, and does not cause any impact on society in general, current or future, or the environment, it is, in general, a private matter: otherwise, the more common case , it is a public matter.
Genetic manipulation is a public matter. Obviously, the risks associated with the creation of GMOs under strict confinement are very different from the risks of their release into the environment but they are not zero. The labeling of products from genetic manipulation allows the consumer to decide whether to take the risk, if he knows it, but does not protect the environment from the risks.
The two areas of commercial application of GMOs so far are in the production of drugs and food. You have to differentiate between these two cases. The production of medicines through GMOs under confinement is different from the production of food from the cultivation of transgenic plants in the open field. The consumption of a medicine is eventual, in case of illness, of a hopefully small part of the population, but food constitutes a basic need for daily consumption of the entire population. When talking about risks and benefits, one must differentiate between the two cases and not compare the potential benefits of medicines with the risks associated with agricultural production.
Central to sustainability is agriculture, the basis of food. In the last 50 years, a product of the Green Revolution, we have an unsustainable agriculture, dependent on fossil energy and agrochemicals, subordinated to the commercial interests of transnational companies, degrading the environment and a vulnerable situation in terms of food security. Faced with this crisis, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared the need to change to sustainable agriculture, a farming system that can last over time without harmful environmental impacts while maintaining soil fertility. and conserving biodiversity: in other words, organic farming.
Although Organic Farming is necessary for sustainability, this is not the path that is being taken. Instead of correcting and avoiding the mistakes of the past, the proponents and beneficiaries of the Green Revolution (RV), transnational companies (TNCs), now promote another agricultural revolution, "The Genetic Revolution", based on the use of transgenic crops ( CT). They justify the TC with advertising, but not with facts, based on their supposed benefits: resistance to pests and consequent reduction in the use of pesticides, increases in productivity, tolerance to drought or cold, reduction in tillage beneficial to the soils. However, it follows the same paradigm of industrial production of RV, which is the cause of the current crisis and, therefore, will continue to exacerbate the problems. It is a recipe to consolidate, even more, the control of the transnationals over the agri-food system, to exacerbate the environmental crisis, to increase genetic erosion and to introduce new uncontrollable risks for the environment and for health that include:
· Most of the TC offering has been herbicide resistant TC, sold as "green," "minimal tillage." Far from being ecological, it means increasing environmental pollution, in particular it is harmful to soil ecology and health.
· Transgenic crops with resistance to pests do not free us from pesticides, only the external application is replaced by their internal, continuous production in all cells of the crop and throughout their life. These toxins are then consumed in food. The accelerated adaptation of the insects is caused since they are exposed to the toxin throughout the life cycle of the crop, unlike normal use, which is punctual. In the case of Bacillus Thuringiensis genes, Bt, a biological control, the resistance developed by pests means that Bt will no longer be effective as a biological control. It is proposed to stop the accelerated adaptation of the plants by sowing part of the area with normal crops so that the insects have a "refuge" where they can feed without being exposed to the Bt toxin in order to reduce the selective pressure. The question is not whether pests will become immune to the Bt toxin but, IN HOW LONG? Therefore, this technology is destined to fail.
· The roots of Bt. Corn exude toxins that last up to a year in the soil and exert toxic effects on soil microorganisms and promote the evolution of resistant species. As a result, changes in the degradation of organic matter and the recycling of and availability of nutrients in the soil have been reported. There is also a risk of horizontal gene transfer between species that can produce new and dangerous pathogens. The natural fertility of the soil is the basis of ecological agriculture and the sustainability of the agroecosystem but the use of TC can cause disturbances in this delicate and intricate ecosystem that we are beginning to understand.
· GURTS technology (Genetic Use Restriction Technology Systems) consists of genetic manipulation to restrict the use of seeds by creating TCs that cannot develop (eg germinate, flower etc.) without the use of certain chemicals produced by the TNCs themselves. Obviously, these technologies would create more chemical contamination, plus the dire consequences of genetic contamination of traditional crops and total dependence on TNCs. In 2000, faced with the rejection of all sectors of society, TNCs agreed not to develop this technology. However, patent applications for this technology have followed.
· Cross fertilization between plants allows the flow of genes between transgenic crops and "natural", non-transgenic crops, causing genetic contamination of natural crops, making them transgenic. It implies that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to preserve a traditional crop. In Mexico, the center of origin of corn, a local variety of corn was contaminated in this way. In a world of global markets, it is impossible to control the fate of each seed that is produced and genetic contamination is already a fact. The only possibility of an alternative agriculture, based on natural germplasm, is if some regions of the world declare themselves free of transgenics and manage to exercise strict controls to ensure it. Since the mechanisms for detecting transgenics are still under development, not yet very sensitive and expensive, this goal is difficult to achieve, but necessary because without it, the option to a non-transgenic diet may disappear in less than 10 years.
· Genetic contamination is particularly dangerous when transgenic plants are grown in the centers of origin of their species because it endangers this heritage of humanity, essential for creating new varieties.
· Genetic erosion or loss of varieties, which was one of the most serious consequences of the Green Revolution, will continue due to substitution and genetic contamination, aggravated by GURTS technologies.
· The presence of new genes, proteins, products associated with the enzyme and any of its metabolites can induce alterations in the ecological relationship of the crop with other species, including the appearance of new pests. Not much is known about these ecosystem effects. It is argued that ecosystems are self-regulating and would eliminate or reduce these irregularities but there is no evidence for this. In addition, it is a bombardment of the environment with elements never before part of the system whose effects are unknown.
· The overwhelming fashion of using GMOs for everything invades all fields. Despite the alerts from scientists about the risks and the need for precaution, it is developing a series of biological controls and industrial (and weapons) technologies with insects and genetically modified microorganisms. It is particularly dangerous to release microorganisms and insects into the environment, modified or not, given their high reproductive speed and high mutation rates and the ease of horizontal gene transfer between bacteria.
In addition to the gene from another species, which expresses the property to be obtained, other genes are inserted, mainly from bacteria and viruses, as markers and promoters. Currently, genes from the cauliflower mosaic virus, a virus similar to the viruses that cause AIDS and Hepatitis C, are used.
· When consuming transgenic foods, new substances are ingested, transgenes and the substances that these genes express that have never formed part of the diet of consumers - be they human or of another species. Toxicity, allergies and significant alterations have been reported in animals fed with experimental transgenic products. We do not know the consequences for humans of continuous long-term consumption of these crops and are not being investigated before placing them on the market.
· It is almost impossible to avoid genetic contamination once a transgenic crop is released into the environment. Consequently, it could be the case that corn is consumed that has Bt toxins, drugs, industrial oils and any other characteristic that it has occurred to them to introduce it. In short, not only will the food stop being the same but it will not be known what is being consumed.
· In whatever dose, a toxic substance causes a reaction whether observable or not. This principle is even used in homeopathy: the body responds to the presence of substances even in concentrations measured in molecules per cc. This reasoning analogous to the one that, in the 19th century, held that a microbe, being so small, could not harm a human being much larger! Today, another non-scientific concept "substantial equivalence" has been invented to hide the fact that a genetically modified food is different from a natural food.
· It is estimated that about 90 trillion (1015) microbes, bacteria, viruses, protozoa, microscopic worms) live harmoniously specific niches of the human body, called "micro-biomes," product of hundreds of thousands of years of co-evolution. There is evidence that this microbial flora protects the body from similar but harmful microbes, they manufacture vital substances for our body such as vitamins and fatty acids, they interact with cells in subtle ways through biochemical reactions that establish a "communication" with the cells of the host, which is believed to stimulate host cells to develop in a specific way. It is worth investigating how the body's microbial system reacts to changes in food. Joshua Lederberg, geneticist, Nobel laureate who called microbial flora "a very large bundle of other genes that we always carry. They are not transmitted as regularly as those on the host chromosome, but this does not mean that they are less important." We must not put at risk the functioning of these, our vital allies - the microbial flora of the body.
Nutrition vs. Nutraceuticals
Faced with the rejection, especially in Europe, of transgenic Bt and herbicide resistant crops, the industry now promotes transgenic crops designed to improve nutrition: nutraceuticals.
The nutrition of an organism is good if it results in a healthy and vigorous organism, which expresses all its genetic potential; it has to be appropriately adapted perfectly to the digestive system of an organism so that it releases the necessary nutrients for its sustenance. Industrial food production with the addition of antimicrobial chemical compounds, artificial colors, emulsifying flavors etc. has introduced new elements in the diet - but not in nutrition. When storing and processing food, many nutrients are lost: then manufacturers replace about 25 natural nutrients with about 4 synthetic vitamins and then call a product that contains fewer nutrients than natural food "fortified."
After the Second World War, other ingredients were added: highly toxic pesticide residues that accumulate in the body's tissues causing cancer and degenerative diseases in the short and long term. Now, the same companies that manufacture pesticides offer us GMO dishes. You have to consume vitamins and nutrients that the body cannot synthesize but it is not necessary to manufacture them or take supplements or bottles or nutraceuticals: everything that humans need for their health occurs in nature.
Since nature provides everything we need, why invent nutraceuticals? - rice that produces substances that I can get from a carrot, or lettuce with vitamins that I get from lemons? Obviously, no genetic modification is necessary to incorporate vitamins and nutrients into the diet. It is enough to consume a varied and balanced diet - which is more interesting, tasty and provides a greater variety of minerals and nutrients in addition to fiber - than to eat the nutrients packaged in pills or in a few nutraceuticals, the product of genetic manipulation. But corporations believe that nutraceuticals or "functional foods" are highly marketable especially when they promise to improve memory or fight cancer.
Nutraceuticals and the proper dosage
Unlike dietary supplements, which are sold dosed, it will be difficult to control the dose of nutritional or medicinal supplements administered in GM foods. Consuming vitamins (or other nutrients) in excess causes a number of known pathologies.
The Case of the Golden Rice:
It is intended to solve the problem of Vitamin A deficiency, by feeding the poor population of Asia with rice genetically modified to produce beta-carotene - a precursor for the production of vitamin A. This rice, called "golden rice" because of its color, is promoted. of the pigmentation it acquires, as an example of the benefits of genetic modification and the sensitivity of corporations to humanitarian problems. However, in addition to the general risks of GM foods noted above, it brings another: excess vitamin A is extremely toxic in excess. The dose that a person who consumes golden rice is not controlled and given the instability of GMOs over time, this dose could be changing. There are also more sensitive populations: fetuses, children and the sick. Fortunately, it appears that rice does not produce the expected amounts of vitamin A so it may "fail" because of this.
This outrage against one of the three most important crops for world food security is not justified. (Rice, Corn and Wheat make up 60% of the world diet) that will cause contamination and genetic erosion of traditional varieties. There are less risky and cheaper options than placing a drug in all the food that forms the basis of the diet of an entire continent such as:
Give those who are deficient, vitamin A tablets.
· Promote the cultivation of vegetables and fruits that contain vitamin A. The advantage is that it not only provides them with Vitamin A but also other nutrients, fiber and minerals that are beneficial to the body. One of the main causes of the problem is the transformation from family farming to monoculture industrial agriculture that has displaced crop diversity. It is part of a general malnutrition problem, not just vitamin A deficiency. Giving supplements of Vit. A does not solve the problem; changing the production system yes.
· Improve the distribution of wealth in the world, control population growth: by addressing the problems of poverty, people would have access to more food and improved nutrition.
The Socio-Political Context
Impact on the "Food Sovereignty" of nations means self-sufficiency in food production, which requires a country to have sovereignty and self-sufficiency in seed production. Whoever controls a country's seed supply controls its food system and, therefore, the entire nation. Hence its strategic importance. This control has largely been handed over to a few transnational companies that prohibit others from reproducing seeds of their varieties "protected" by patents or by breeder's rights. Currently, a few transnational companies are "perfecting" the GURTS technology that produces seeds or sterile or that are not developed without the application of a secret ingredient that they manufacture. In these ways, they can control the commercial seed system on which 50% of the world's food production depends.
The United States, through the World Trade Organization, is threatening economic sanctions on countries that propose a moratorium on the release and introduction into their respective territories of GMOs and their products. They argue that such sanitary and environmental measures constitute barriers to trade in their products. In this way, and outside of democratic controls, the interests of its biotechnology industries prevail over the interests of sovereign nations. It is striking that NOVARTIS has coined the term "corporate citizenship!"
The balance of trade could change if genetically engineered "tropical" crops were produced to be grown in the North or to replace tropical products. Nefarious and warlike applications are not lacking.
Tolerating the intolerable: It is instructive to compare the debate on genetically modified crops and foods with the way in which the "safe" use of extremely toxic agrochemicals was promoted and then justified the consumption of residues of them in food at "tolerable" levels. The chemical industry has sold us the idea that a poison stops being a poison when it is consumed in small doses. He invented "scientific" norms of what was tolerable, (based on the survival, also read "death," of HALF of the animals that consumed the dose) that allowed them to introduce numerous highly dangerous poisons into the food chain. Only recently has an international agreement been reached for the elimination of some of these substances. When establishing tolerance levels, language is used that diverts the consumer's attention from the essence of what is being measured: the concentration in the food of a poison. Instead of referring to lethal doses or toxic doses, it speaks of tolerance and permitted levels, which, in itself, sounds benign and does not cause a reaction of rejection and alarm.
Corporate Manipulation: The same agribusiness corporations today maintain that transgenic crops and foods are safe. Almost all the toxicity data are generated by the same companies, which detracts from their credibility, especially since they have a history of hiding information by not reporting all the results obtained. This is also a lack of responsibility for governments that must undertake independent studies. Monsanto for years gave an interpretation of its data on rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) ensuring its safety and the milk obtained from cows treated with it. He silenced those who questioned them by various means, used influences to obtain approval from the FDA (1993) and the Codex Alimentarius (1998). In late 1999, Monsanto's results were refuted by independent studies in Canada and Europe, and Codex Alimentarius withdrew approval. Another recent case is the complaint by the British newspaper of the company IMUTRAN, a subsidiary of NOVARTIS, for serious technical failures and distortion of data reported in xenotransplantation trials. Advertising is used to persuade the public that GMOs are desirable and let's remember the campaign against Nestle for unethical promotion of its formula to replace breast milk. But sometimes there are positive cases like the case of Novartis that in August 2000, promised not to use GM foods in their food. As one of the main producers of transgenic seeds, it was effectively refusing to use its own products.
Violation of Rights and Elimination of Options: The most serious thing of all is that if transgenic crops are not permanently eliminated, due to genetic contamination, all possibility of the option to a natural diet and organic farming is closed. This looming undemocratic situation implies a violation of basic rights such as, for example, prior informed consent, the right to health, a healthy diet and environment, to just name a few established in the Venezuelan Constitution. Focusing on biotechnology not only diverts attention, and resources, from other directions, more sustainable and safe that could and should be taken, such as the adoption of organic farming, but they are annihilated sooner.
We return to our question: What urgent and serious problem of humanity is being solved with the use of genetically modified crops? We have not found any, rather a very serious, transcendental problem is being created. The monetary benefits received by a few corporations have no weight compared to the irreversible damage to nature, present and future world heritage.
The myth that biotechnology contributes to solving the problem of hunger has finally died, thanks to a top NOVARTIS executive saying what critics have been saying for years:
"If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world," Steve Smith, a director of the world's biggest biotechnology company, Novartis, insisted, "tell them that it is not. - To feed the world takes political and financial will - it's not about production and distribution. "
"If someone tells you that genetic manipulation is going to feed the world, tell them it won't. - To feed the world. It takes political and financial will - it's not about production and distribution." Remarks by Steve Smith, director of the world's largest biotechnology company, NOVARTIS, during his speech at a public meeting in Tittleshall, Norfolk, March 2000, reported in the British newspaper "The Guardian" UK 24th August 2000.
The powerful transnational companies define which transgenic crops to produce and their motivation is one: profit. They grow crops with resistance to their own herbicides in order to sell more herbicide. GURTS technologies have only one purpose: to ensure the dependence of farmers on their products and to sell them new agrochemicals: it is not related to yields or food.
Nor can natural foods improve on nutritional value. Many modern varieties are less nutritious than the traditional ones, a consequence of plant breeding aimed at developing characteristics of agroindustrial interest at the cost of other attributes such as taste and nutritional value. Most of the proposals are trivial in the extreme to create fads and frivolous mass consumer markets by misleading people into pretending they can substitute a healthy diet for additives in nutraceuticals, such as:
· Coffee without caffeine: if you do not want to consume caffeine, then stop consuming coffee.
· "Light" potatoes that absorb less fat when frying! If you don't want to consume fat, boil your potatoes.
Under what perverse view of the world is it justified to induce transcendental irreversible ecosystem impacts for ends so, but so absurdly trivial?
Zero Risk? The traditional method of crossing and selection for the development of new varieties does not run with the risks of transgenics. Poor soils can be improved with Organic Farming practices and open pollinated crops are just as productive as hybrids. Society does not need GMOs at all.
And the advancement of science?
A distinction must be made between the advancement of science and technological advancement. Science advances as knowledge expands and theories are created that explain more phenomena with predictive power. It is an end in itself. But what is being investigated is not accidental. Most of the research in genetics is funded by corporations whose guidelines serve to advance their projects.
Technology is instrumental: it is the application of science to obtain a product, and genetic manipulation falls into this category. It is a technological advance, obtaining tangible products of economic value for the company, which is normal because it has to be accountable to its investors. Genetic manipulation advances genetic science and our knowledge about the consequences that affect us all, whether we want to or not. In the past, society used to turn to science to find the solution to its problems. Today we find the opposite. It creates "solutions," products of genetic manipulation, and then "creates" a supposed need. It is a solution looking for a problem
The fact that we lack a good genetic theory is not an obstacle for companies to go ahead with all kinds of genetic manipulation to obtain a product that offers the possibility of juicy economic benefits, regardless of the long-term consequences for nature and the society.
Genetics is a science in its infancy: there are many unanswered questions as illustrated by the deciphering of the human genome: some 33,000 genes, far fewer than previously believed, and few compared to the 13,000 in a fly or 25,000 in the humble Arabidopsis. thaliana. We no longer speak of the genome as what characterizes the organism but of the proteome: the proteins that the organism can synthesize. You cannot explain the immense differences between a sheep and a human being based on the number of genes when they share 90% of their genes. Genes make up only 4% of DNA; What is the role of 96% of DNA?
How does cell differentiation occur? Where do the psychic properties, consciousness, emerge from?
Scientists often forget that all scientific knowledge is tentative: it is the best explanation (theory) we have of a phenomenon. La bondad de una teoría se mide por su poder de predicción: en la manipulación genética no se puede predecir lo que resultará ni qué pasará a largo y mediano plazo. Las verdades de una época son las mentiras de otra. Esto debe infundir humildad, y precaución en actuar. Esto debe ser mayor razón para ejercer precaución y tener humildad. El uso responsable de la ciencia nos obliga aplicar el Principio de Precaución: no se tiene que esperar pruebas científicas para tomar acciones para prevenir daños irreversibles o graves para la salud y el ambiente. Este principio es la base ética de la investigación científica responsable.
La historia nos enseña las consecuencias de la aplicación apurada de una tecnología sin evaluar sus riesgos. ¿Cuántas medicinas no se ha tenido que retirar del mercado porque produjeron efectos tóxicos al largo plazo pero en el momento de aprobarlos se consideraron buenos? Una vez se creía que los microorganismos no podrían hacernos daño por ser tan pequeños! Hace pocos años, se creía que los CFC fueron totalmente inertes. Ahora nos sorprende que una proteína, un prión puede ser agente infeccioso. No conocer impactos no significa que no existen. Se requiere de mayor investigación para conocer el funcionamiento de los ecosistemas y el cuerpo sano y como los OMG puedan alterarlos.
Reinventando la Naturaleza
La naturaleza es un sistema de asombrosa complejidad y se sabe que las consecuencias de una modificación aparentemente insignificante de los ecosistemas, pueden producir consecuencias inesperadas de largo alcance tanto en el espacio como en el tiempo de manera que no percatamos de los daños que causamos en la naturaleza sino hasta después de muchos años, y en lugares, a veces, muy alejados de las causas iniciales. La biodiversidad natural es fruto y testimonio de centenares de años de coevolución: una enciclopedia que guarda los secretos de la vida misma. La manipulación genética se dedica, no a generar conocimientos sobre la vida, sino a reorganizar la naturaleza de cuyo funcionamiento se conoce poco. Se propone cambiar la naturaleza de la naturaleza sin conocerla y sin la más remota idea de que se está colocando en su lugar.
Efectivamente, se trata de "reinventar la naturaleza" pero: ¿para qué? Quienes se dedican a estas actividades seguramente nos explicarán que es "para mejorarla" de alguna manera, lo que presume, con arrogancia inaudita, conocer lo suficiente de la naturaleza, de la biodiversidad y de sus interrelaciones como para juzgarla deficiente y tener la sabiduría, o impertinencia? para diseñar tal mejora.
"La creciente costumbre de introducir al organismo humano un sin fin de moléculas biológicamente foráneas para obtener varias ventajas comerciales es similar a tirar un montón de tornillos y tuercas a la maquinaria más delicada que existe."
Dr. William Smith: (Investigador de Cáncer -1960)
* Coordinadora de RAPAL-VE Miembro: Comisión de Asuntos Ambientales de la Universidad de los Andes.