Georgofili World

Newsletter of the Georgofili Academy

Are genetically modified plants a danger?

There is no reason why plant geneticists must watch helplessly as their research on the genetic modification of plants is subjected to prohibitions. They have suffered in silence for too long and now their voice is being heard.
A European Union regulation leaves it up to member states to regulate the cultivation of genetically modified plants within their borders. In Italy, the State Council has used this as an opportunity to ban both research and production. All this now, while for twenty years, transgenic plants have increasingly been grown worldwide. A little less than 200 million hectares, well over 10% of cultivated areas worldwide, are now destined annually to Genetically Modified Plants (GMP). This, while we feed ourselves with GM-derived plants or animals that are fed with GM plants and feed. Slogans such as "acceptance of the precautionary principle" have led to the premise of destroying plants in the experimental fields (recently with the destruction of transgenic plants at the University of Tuscia). This, while all over the world, species that are more parasite-resistant and have less need of water open up a real possibility to the hungry and the undernourished on the world.
We cannot just ask Italy to respect the role of science on a subject that has already had a huge impact application worldwide. We want to recall that researchers have always studied nature to understand its rules and use them for human progress. Modifications based on the transfer of genes fall within this ongoing process.
Let us start by rebutting claims used by GMP opponents.
First argument: enslavement to multinational corporations.
The GM plants grown around the world today are propagated by seed and the GM seeds are produced by some multinationals. It is obvious that the strong opposition to the "multinationals" as holders of the rights to the cultivated varieties for which they charge higher prices to farmers who want to grow them, exposes an attitude contrary to innovation. A "third party" role for those specializing in the production of starting material (seeds, tubers, bulbs, etc.) has not been accepted but rather, dusting off Lysenko, the farmer is believed to be the only person entrusted with the full ownership of the species being raised. This battle, apparently in the farmer’s favor, may be fought in another way, one more suited to a world that has to feed more than 7 billion people. The goal is to rescue by the agricultural innovations that require considerable financial, technical and human resources. On the other hand, opposition to the multinationals is possible on a competitive level as China and Brazil are doing by developing new technologies.
Second argument by opponents: the precautionary principle.
Applied to the GMO industry, it has nothing to do with scientific research in this area. This principle is foreign even to GMP crops given that, for a little under two decades now, none of them has caused problems quantitatively and qualitatively different from those generated by common varieties achieved through traditional genetic methods.
Third argument: science would be not just the multinationals’ ally and food’s enemy, but would be responsible for "desecrating the sanctity" of food itself. However, we must be aware that the confrontation between opposing opinions is not centered on science, but it is represented precisely by its "sacredness" profaned by several "witch doctors". However, biotechnology can be very useful. One recent example is a work published in Plant and Cell Physiology by a group from the University of Lund (Sweden), on the identification in the sugar beet of a non-symbiotic hemoglobin that is very similar to human hemoglobin. In addition to being an interesting piece of data in terms of plant physiology/biochemistry, it could open up interesting biotechnological perspectives. It is certain that opposition will again be intense, leading politics to impose yet another roadblock. 
In the impressive scientific literature on the impact of GMOs, instead, we find numerous sound reports regarding the absence of damage, as well as many positive statements. A recent survey examined 150 publications regarding the various areas of the world where GM plants are grown. The results confirm a 37% reduction in pesticides, a 22% average growth in production, and a 68% increase in farmers’ profits. The results are greater for the species transformed to be insect-resistant as compared to those that are herbicide-resistant. Both farmer income and production are greater in developing countries than in industrialized countries. This research could also bring the long-running debate on GMPs to an end, but it will not be so. For example, developing countries could also grow GM plants, but do not because they would face strong obstacles to exports, primarily in the European Union.
Despite the widespread pessimism of recent national and European policy decisions, the scientific community continues to believe that some rationality will survive. Supporting that hope, there have recently been numerous statements in favor of GMP research as well as of their use in agriculture. Among the most significant is the statement by the EASAC (European Academies Science Advisory Council, voice of the entire European scientific community), a document by twenty eminent European scientists in plant molecular biology in addition to various documents from the Italian scientific community, and, lastly, the recent stance taken by Elena Cattaneo, senator for life.
Besides the business and emotional factors, Europe will have to take into consideration research results, eventually putting aside groundless fears.