Year XLIII, 2001, Number 3, Page 193

 

 

THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
AND GENETICALLY-MODIFIED ORGANISMS
 
 
Charles Darwin was well aware of man’s capacity to influence the selection of plant and animal species. This much emerges from his deliberate use, when presenting his revolutionary theory, of the expression natural selection to distinguish it from artificial selection. That the latter was introduced by man as long ago as ancient times is demonstrated by the episode in Genesis describing Jacob’s feat with the speckled sheep and goats.
Today, genetic engineering can produce wonders far greater than Jacob’s. Until a few decades ago, quantitative and qualitative improvements in farming were still the consequences of technological innovations in the fields of mechanics and chemistry and of selection practices applied to plants and animals. But the agricultural revolution that we are witnessing today is based on a new factor which, in view of its vast potentialities, gives rise both to grand hopes that it might become possible to meet the food requirements of a rapidly growing world population, and to numerous ethical and ecological concerns. This factor is the — increasingly widespread — application of gene manipulation techniques to plant and animal species. Indeed, thanks to these techniques, it is now possible to extract from some organisms the genes responsible for given characteristics, or for the production of, for example, vitamins and toxins, and to insert them into the genomes of other organisms with which the former would never have been able to combine naturally, thereby creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is an innovation that has left public opinion perturbed and one to which states, in particular the European states, are responding on an individual basis, governed by the desire to defend their national interests and by the emotional reaction of public opinion in each country.
For as long as this new capacity remained the province of laboratory research and medical application, concerns over possible dangers connected with its use were limited to the sphere of scientific debate. And in any case, the benefits appeared so great as to cancel out any doubts (such as when the human gene for insulin was inserted into the genome of a bacterium and led, at last, to the mass production of insulin for therapeutic purposes). Concerns grew when GMOs entered the human food chain and, at the same time, the inefficiency of the institutions in preventing serious contamination phenomena — such as “mad cow” disease and dioxin-contaminated chicken and fish — first became apparent.
One example, in particular, illustrates the contradictory nature of this situation.
The spraying of the potent toxin of the Bacterium thuringensis over crops as a method of pest control never sparked off any protest campaigns, but when one of its genes was introduced directly into the genome of the plants, to make them able themselves to develop defences against the insects capable of destroying them, then the bacterium became emblematic of the dangers of GMOs. It is important to recognise that the fear which spread and which has encouraged the birth of anti-GMO campaigns and movements has a very real basis: man has shown that he is capable not just of channelling, but also of creating diversification of species. But it must also be recognised that this is knowledge that cannot now be destroyed, knowledge that, as in the case of any other discovery or invention, we must learn to govern.
 
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When attempting to make short-term predictions on the spread of transgenic crops, it is important not to underestimate the inherent capacity to spread possessed by all new cultivation techniques. We have already seen how, in the past, the introduction of new varieties had a huge impact on food production in most of the world’s developing countries. Indeed, between 1965 and 1969, the area given over to the cultivation of new varieties of wheat and rice — these varieties being the fruit of natural cross-fertilisation — rose from a hundred hectares to almost fifteen million hectares, allowing India to triple its annual wheat production, and China, in the space of twenty years, to double its production per hectare of rice and wheat. Looking at today’s GNOs, a similar trend appears to be emerging: even though the USA’s very first fields of transgenic crops were planted only six years ago, today as much as twenty percent of the land given over to the cultivation of grain in the USA is planted with genetically-modified seed, while throughout the world as a whole, twenty-five million acres of land are now cultivated using transgenic seeds.
At the same time, it cannot be ignored that an uncontrolled spread of GMOs could have effects, the consequences of which it is not easy to predict, on the global distribution of certain products — effects which could create very severe problems for the states affected and could, therefore, also create security problems. Just imagine what would happen to the Philippines, where thirty percent of the population depends economically on the production of palm oil, were this product to be extracted, as is now possible, from transgenic canola plantations in Canada. On the other hand, even were Europe and North America to begin moving in the direction of restrictions on, or reductions of, per capita food consumption (particularly meat consumption), these efforts would, today, still not be sufficient to satisfy the growing food requirements of Asia and Africa. Indeed, so-called organic farming (based on crop rotation, on the use of natural fertilisers and on natural methods of controlling diseases and pests) cannot realistically be seen as a solution to the world food problem: using these techniques it would be possible to produce only 60-85% of that which is produced using traditional methods — unless of course greater areas could be cultivated, which in turn would lead to increased water consumption and erosion of the land. For the moment, organic farming seems, therefore, to be only a partial solution, and one that can be adopted only by regions, such as western Europe, that have a considerable (continental) capacity for overproduction of food and a high enough level of wellbeing to allow them the luxury of eating less while spending more.
 
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How are these contradictions being tackled? What political choices are being made by states and what proposals advanced by society and the world of science?
With reference to the states, while the USA and several other countries, China first and foremost, are tending to favour, on a legislative and commercial level, the study and spread of GMOs, Europe is striving to slow down the process. It must also be added that the distinction that, in Europe, is made by parties and movements that declare support for transgenic applications in medicine, while rejecting them in the alimentary sphere, is based on a dividing line that — since it became apparent that genes capable of producing vitamins useful for eradicating serious disease can be introduced into various varieties of plant, and clear that there is an interaction between biogenetic therapy-oriented research and agricultural applications — is becoming extremely blurred.
These different attitudes do not therefore have any real scientific or ethical basis, but are instead a reflection of an existing power situation. The USA is striving to preserve its world leadership in the biotechnology sector and as an exporter of agricultural produce all over the world. China, meanwhile, is anxious not to fall behind in the application of a technology that offers it the prospect of consolidating its autonomy in the provision of its foodstuffs, an autonomy that will enable it to cope with what is predicted will be one of the greatest mass migrations from the country to the cities that mankind has ever seen (around 150 million people); indeed, this phenomenon, together with the prospect of an increase in per capita consumption, will render it necessary to increase still further the yield from agricultural land. The European nations on the other hand, despite having contributed to the research and development of biotechnologies, now find themselves faced with a series of problems: the need to reform the Common Agricultural Policy; the need to adapt production systems in response to the growth in international competition; the prospect of the enlargement of the EU to countries wanting to enjoy the same advantages that EC, and subsequently EU, farmers have for years enjoyed; the crisis of legitimacy that, since their glaring impotence and inefficiency in the management of the “mad cow” crisis came to light, has rocked both national and European health control authorities.
In Europe therefore, as far as these issues are concerned, confusion reigns. This fact is amply illustrated by the behaviour of the European Commission which, since 1990, has issued directives seeking to reconcile its wish, on principle, to approach with caution the production and consumption of GMOs with its desire not to penalise the biotechnology industry in the various member states. As a result, by the time the next directive is issued — a directive that will stress the opportuneness of labelling genetically modified products in order to allow consumers to recognise them — in some countries over 40% of tested maize on the market will, according to data released by the French food safety organisation, already present traces of GMOs and a number of transgenic crops will still be being cultivated in open fields (maize, beetroot, rape, potatoes, sunflowers, grapes, poplars, coffee, tobacco, fodder crops, etc.). In truth, even were Europe to place a complete ban on GMOs, a decision that could not fail to generate commercial tensions between Europe on the one hand, and the USA and China on the other, it would still be difficult regain full control over the natural origins of products introduced into the European food chain. Incidentally, we actually lost sight of the natural origins of food products long ago (although no one ever worried about it until now), given that the wheat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries we eat — to cite just a few examples — are no longer the original natural varieties; those have long since disappeared.
The attitude of the anti-GMO protest movements meanwhile has, to date, not differed all that much from that of the peace movements. While the latter demand the dismantling of nuclear and other arsenals, the former call for the eradication of transgenic farming and the boycotting of products containing traces of GMOs. But the getting rid of existing arms, like the elimination of crops deemed to be dangerous, would not eliminate man’s capacity to build new bombs or to develop new GMOs. The question that needs to be asked therefore is this: what political instruments can, at world level, bring the study and production of GMOs under stricter control?
As far as the reactions of the world of science are concerned, it is possible, as highlighted by a recent American report,[1] to identify five broad aspects of the GMO debate. Three of these were analysed by the report and are: the dangers to human health, the possibility of environmental contamination, and the risks associated with the possible emergence of more resistant forms of plant disease. The other two, not dealt with in the study, are the possible repercussions on agriculture in the Third World and objections, on principle, against interventions deemed to be “unnatural”. The report examines only the products themselves and not the processes by which they were created, declaring explicitly in the introduction that it does not “address philosophical and social issues surrounding the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, food labelling, or international trade in genetically modified plants”.
Regardless of how one might judge the conclusions of this report — as far as the efficiency of existing controls are concerned, they are rather over-optimistic — this approach establishes a clear boundary between what falls within the sphere of scientific investigation and what falls within that of politics and international relations. But presumably, this is only in line with what any scientific committee, national or international, might do. It has to be realised that no type of technical body or committee of experts can take decisions that, in the final analysis, must be taken in a political setting by political bodies.
Gordon Conway, current president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has funded important research in the field of genetic engineering, claimed that the ideal way of overcoming widespread hostility to GMOs would be to establish an independent European, or even world, authority. In other words, an impartial body with the capacity to test the effects of transgenic products both on the environment and on human health.[2] The idea behind the proposal is to reassure, using scientific arguments, a public that has been left bewildered by inconsistent political decisions and by the clash of opposing interests. But what decision-making and sanctioning power would this authority have? Even were it to be established, it would be unlikely to produce findings and conclusions much different from those contained in the aforementioned National Research Council report. Moreover, in Europe, the European Commission already has plans to set up a food authority founded on the principles of independence, excellence and transparency. Having said that, it has also established that risk situations must continue to be managed by existing Community institutions, in other words that they must remain within the sphere of the control regulations agreed by the states, thus admitting that this new authority will ultimately be conditioned by the intergovernmental politics of the member states.
Unfortunately, however, the problem is more general than this, and the growing delay in the processes of regional unification in the world threaten to trigger increasingly serious biotech crises. The unregulated production and marketing of GMOs both stem from the agricultural imbalances that have been created on a continental and on a world scale. The responsibility for these imbalances, since they are closely linked with the energy, production and trade policies pursued by states, in particular by the largest, most highly populated and most developed ones, must lie with these states. It is clear that a problem of this magnitude cannot, in a fragmented world, made up of almost two hundred states, be tackled and solved through reform, however radical, of the existing international bodies and institutions, or through the creation of new, but similar, bodies. Neither is the creation of a democratic world government an immediately achievable objective. What is needed is for a transitory period to take shape, a period in which it might be possible to reduce the current chaos in the biotechnology sphere and to render feasible and credible efforts to create large regional (continental) federations in the world as the first step towards the creation of a world federation. This is by no means a new idea, indeed it was considered even prior to the creation of the United Nations and analysed by historians of urban development like Lewis Mumford, who drew closer to federalist thought as it was becoming politically active in Europe and the world. It was he who, in the ‘30s, considering the problem of the irrational exploitation of the land and of agricultural resources, came to the conclusion that the only solution was the creation of a “world federation of balanced regions”.
 
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In the light of the above observations, two conclusions can be reached. The first concerns the evolution of international equilibria and the other the future of scientific research and the regulation of intellectual property.
On an international level, the behaviour of Europe can be seen as increasingly indefensible and irrational: after all, in over fifty years, the continent has proved unable to advance beyond the creation of a weak institutional structure in which, embryonic expressions of supranational democracy and of continental monetary power aside, what has continued to prevail has been the determination of the Union’s member states not to relinquish their sovereignty. This has been, and will continue to be, reflected negatively in all the most important aspects of domestic and foreign policy in all the European nations. One need only think — to remain on an agricultural note — of the crisis over Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy,[3] which has even seen chancellor Schroeder going so far as to propose a European federation in which control over agricultural policy would be restored to the nation-states. Or of the fact that the France’s research minister feels able to claim that there is no need, in his country, to replace national legislation with European directives on biotechnological safety, given that France already has stricter standards in force.
The sooner public opinion and the political class realise that there is a political problem that must be solved before it is possible even to begin tackling efficiently the problems raised by these new gene manipulation techniques, the smaller the damage due to the uncontrolled use of GMOs will be. The need for this realisation can be seen as even more pressing when one considers the extent to which the possibility (or impossibility) of reducing the imbalances between rich and poor countries depends on the foreign policy and security choices made by the large continental states. Neither the European states, nor the institutions of the European Union are currently capable of playing anything like a guiding role in this respect. It is easy to imagine that, unless at least some of the European states can show the whole world that they are capable of forming a federal state, it is very unlikely that we will see, in other continents, the emergence of equally important movements towards the creation of new regional federations. And in the absence of these, there can be little hope of reducing the production and trade imbalances that are at the root of the anarchic, and thus dangerous, trend now emerging in the use of new genetically modified products.
As far as the future of genetic research is concerned, in spite of the concerns generated, in public opinion, by the prospect of yet more new discoveries, an affirmation made by Einstein in the 1930s still holds true:[4] it is technology, or applied science, that time and time again brings man face to face with problems of extreme gravity, not science itself. One need only consider the extent to which discoveries in the field of biogenetics are still in their infancy: it is still not possible, even today, to establish with certainty how many living species actually exist; and of those that do exist, only a relatively small number have been studied and classified, a fact illustrated by the vast difference between the scientists’ estimation of the number of existing viruses (400,000) and the number actually classified (just 1,550!).[5] No one can predict what the consequences of crossed biogenetic and biodiversity studies will be. What can be predicted, however, is that the influence (positive or negative) that their effects have on the future of mankind will depend on the institutions that man proves able to create. In fact — and this applies to biotechnologies too — only the state can adequately manage the relationship between scientific applications and the fulfilling of new needs, by governing innovative forces and by educating society about their application. But none of this can be brought about in the fragmented state framework of Europe today — a Europe in which innovation, a factor emerging in various fields, has long escaped proper national control, and in which the capacity to influence the balance of world power, in turn determining the directions followed by the various international organisations and agencies, is sadly lacking.
On a more general international level, it is no coincidence that the current debate within the sphere of the WTO and the UN on the relationship between public and private research and on the regulation of intellectual property — two aspects of fundamental importance in the government of scientific applications in any state — has apparently failed to produce any real answers. The debate over the future of intellectual property rights, in particular, is bringing to light a currently unbridgeable gap between the interests of rich countries, like the USA, which are committed to strengthening the principle, in the biotechnological field as in others, of the commercial exploitation, on an international scale, of patents, and less developed countries, China and India first and foremost, that insist on their right to protect their markets and not to release data relating to their natural genetic resources.[6] In this setting, Europe continues to be absent and, lacking in influence, unable to propose innovative solutions.
 
Franco Spoltore


[1] Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation, report produced by a National Research Council Study Commission, National Academy Press, 2001.
[2] Il Sole 24 Ore, 16th September, 2001.
[3] See, Alfonso Sabatino, “Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and a European Constitution,” in The Federalist, XLIII (2001), pp.99-124.
[4] Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, 1950.
[5] W. Wayt Gibbs, “On the Termination of Species,” in Scientific American, November 2001.
[6] See the article, “China opposition may delay plant genes agreement”, published in the Financial Times, 24th October, 2001.

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