International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

Genetic Engineering: an Extremely Costly Risk
Fabrizio Fabbri

Graduate in Natural Sciences. Head of Greenpeace, Italy

Good morning, everybody. I would like to thank the organizers of this meeting who have kindly invited me to make this speech on the hot new issue of genetic engineering. This is a technique whereby scientists can interfere and go into nucleus of the cell. In particular they can cut parts of DNA, the line which contains the genes, in which all information on living organisms is to be found. These pieces are taken and just put into another DNA line. This process naturally occurs when two gametes meet and it is called crossover, and through it two similar DNAs can change part of their lines. This is a very important process because this is the basis of the evolutionary system which allows species to continue their life, while staying in the surrounding environment. So what's wrong with genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering is wrong simply because scientists are mixing different DNA from different species, from different genes, from different families or orders. They are simply doing what Mother Nature tries to prevent through certain mechanisms, thanks to which the breeding can occur only between similar individuals, that is belonging to the same species. Nowadays genetic engineering can take pieces of bacteria or virus and put them into an animal or plant. Furthermore, they can take genes from an animal or human and put them in a vegetable or other species. In nature we could never find a vegetable with human genes, with bacteria genes or even with fish genes in it.

Genetic engineering has developed quickly in a short time, and is widely used in pharmaceutical and medical applications since it can offer some surprising possibilities of treating certain diseases. Just think about diabetes. The production of insulin to counteract diabetes is made through a genetic engineering process: the human gene producing insulin is put in a bacteria culture which can produce it in sufficient quantities to tackle diabetes in humans. What's happening in big multinationals, for example Monsanto, the owner of the PCB patent? They are now heavily involved in biotechnologies, producing new plant species for their own purposes, for their own business. Even green organisations did not at first realise the risks. Greenpeace has been studying involvement in genetic engineering since 1991 but actually last year was the first year in which there were large areas of fields growing genetically engineered plants, especially Monsanto soya. The producers themselves claim that this new technology can save the world from starvation, but we know that to be a complete lie. Actually the GM plants are designed to be resistant to attack from herbicides produced by Monsanto themselves, who hold the patent on a herbicide called "Round-up", patented around 20 years ago. This means that for 20 years Monsanto have made money selling this kind of herbicide all around the world.

Once the 20 years were up, any other company in the field would be able to produce the herbicide. Monsanto anticipated this situation, and so created a new plant, the Round-up Ready soya bean, containing some pieces, some genes from bacteria or viruses and another plant. As I said, this new soya bean plant is resistant to attack from Round-up herbicide. So after patenting Round-up soya Monsanto will own the right to use it for the next 20 years. Now Monsanto is selling a kit of soya beans plus Round-up herbicide in order to keep the monopoly on these products. This is the only reason why Monsanto is producing Round-up-resistant plants. Monsanto has also patented tens of other species, from cauliflower to spinach, all resistant to the herbicides they produce themselves. It's very unlikely that by simplistically putting an alien species into a specific environment, we can solve the problems of shortage and war. Everybody agrees that famine is a problem caused not by a lack of available food but by unequal food distribution worldwide. The western world now produces more food than it needs; a great deal of the food produced is destroyed for market reasons. We can say the same, for example, about the GM maize patented by Ciba-Geigy in a joint venture called Novartis. The Novartis maize contains a whole bacterium, botulus, together with parts of various viruses, and has been patented to be resistant to a herbicide produced by Ciba-Geigy called Basta, which is supposed to be resistant to larva attack. The botulus bacterium put into the maize DNA is well known also in organic farming for producing a toxin, a compound toxic for insects. In fact in organic farming it is sprayed on the insects so producing the toxin and killing the insects. It is a natural insecticide. The scientists at Ciba-Geigy thought that if they could take this bacterium and include it in the DNA of the maize, they would have produced a plant able to produce toxins for itself and so kill the larvae as soon as they entered the plant. Experiments of this kind were carried out on cotton two years ago.

Considerable quantities of cotton seed, manipulated as I have explained, were extensively used over the USA, but all the plantations were destroyed by larvae. All that happened simply because the botulus bacterium put into the plant didn't produce enough toxins to kill the larvae. The risk they run is not only that of losing crops: what is worse is that if the insect receives too little of the toxins, it can become toxin resistant and the problem will be repeated with future crops. In this case, the botulus can no longer be used in organic farming. What's even worse with the GM maize is that during the first phases of development, the Ciba-Geigy experts cut a piece of DNA from a bacterium in order to give the crop resistance to herbicides, but unfortunately certain genes were put into the plant which made it resistant to a widely used antibiotic. The corn itself doesn't need to be resistant to antibiotics because they are never used for agricultural purposes. This was just an accident: they wanted to cut a piece of DNA from the gene sequence, but they unfortunately took a slightly longer piece, carrying information they did not want, namely resistance to antibiotics. The plant itself doesn't suffer through this, but part of the scientific community strongly believes that there is a real possibility that feeding animals or humans with grain containing genes giving resistance to antibiotics, the intestinal and stomach bacteria can cross over with the bacterium in the grain, thus making the whole body resistant to antibiotics. In such a situation we would no longer be able to use certain antibiotics for veterinary or human health purposes.

The people really taking advantage of such events are the multinationals. They are using us as laboratory mice, simply because they have no idea how the human body will react to the ingestion of GMOs. They don't carry out any tests to evaluate the human body's response to food including bacteria or viruses. What they did do at the start was to take some pieces of DNA from the brazil nut and put it in the soya bean. It was discovered that people who could normally tolerate soya beans developed an intolerance to GM soya, so they withdrew the relevant patent. Another setback happened to the GM industry in Japan, who were producing an essential amino acid called tryptophane. By using 5 GM bacteria, they produced large amounts of tryptophane which they put on the market. 39 people died because they were affected by a syndrome which experts later attributed to the action of GM bacteria; and hundreds more survived to suffer long-term damage. This is another example of what can happen despite researchers' assurances that everything is okay and that there are definite guarantees. The national or international organizations entrusted with checking research results just believe the reports submitted by the chemical companies. That is why the market is flooded with chemical compounds that are withdrawn only when there is a clear damage to human beings. This happened with all the chemicals banned or restricted in the last few years: DDT, PCBs, hexachlorobenzine, etc. All compounds taken off the market were used for decades until the damage to life, and especially the human environment, became obvious. Only when industry can no longer deny responsibility for chemical damage, very often only at this stage will the product be withdrawn or its use restricted.

The same is happening with GMOs, which are put on the market without scientific evidence to show that they are safe. They can be sprayed on to crops and grown completely unrestricted simply because the producer says that everything is okay, so it is up to us to show the regulators that all this is wrong. So, basically, what we can say is that there are examples, worrying examples, to warn us that genetic engineering can constitute a very serious risk for all of us and the environment we live in. The worst of it is that we cannot quantify the potential dangers: we are left with a big question mark. We will eventually be able to evaluate the damage a couple of decades from now and in the meantime we will be surrounded by GMOs. There is a whole list of patented plants and animals waiting to be put onto the market. In a couple of years' time GM foods might be the only foods available. As if that were not enough, the multinationals are succeeding in getting the patent rights, which means that they will be able to patent gene sequences or heredity or even human teeth. In the US some umbilical items are already patented, and 90% of gene life in India has been patented in the US. All these patenting rights allow multinationals to receive royalties for any use of what they have patented. The last point on this is that the multinationals have in their hands the evolution of the future: they are guiding the evolution of whole species, whole orders of animals and vegetables - they are modifying the development of a scenario which has been going for billions of years.

What can we do? Unfortunately, I'm quite sure that we cannot stop genetic engineering at the moment; we must be realistic: last year in Italy we unloaded half a million tonnes of GM soya beans which are now on the market, and nobody worries about what these products contain. It's too late: we just can't stop these products being used. The Scientific Commission of the EU has recently decided that multinationals have the right to patent life, and that maize and soya, along with other specific products, can be extensively grown. The process is unstoppable now: GM foods are on the market, being eaten by us. We will nevertheless have to set up an opposition movement - indeed, inactivity is too risky, and would be of no benefit to the community as a whole.

We cannot accept this "new colonization". The US is actually leading the largest colonization movement in the world: they are trying to persuade governments not to ban imports of GMOs, as they are in India, Egypt, in fact wherever there is a government or movement opposed to them. I think that the power now is in the hands of the consumer. By that I mean that the multinationals can produce whatever they want, but they will survive only provided there is a market for their GM products. If we react by saying, "No, thank you, we aren't interested: we don't need to use GM products because we just prefer natural ones," then the multinationals will have a rethink and stop production of GMOs. At the moment this is the only road we can go down in order to stop the growth of such an industry. I believe then that the first thing for us to do is to reject GMOs, and to demand the availability of natural foods, perhaps without use of chemicals. We are, unfortunately, in a very weak position: until last year the environmental movement was totally intent on combatting chemical agriculture, the use of pesticides or herbicides and so on. Now we must fight GMOs first, followed by pesticides and herbicides. Of course the best course of action is to base our diets on organic produce.

The biggest organic farmers' association is defending its products from manipulation, but at the same time we should ask for a separation of GMOs from non-modified produce. We should ask importers and producers to get separation of GMOs from non-GMOs, so that the food industry can obtain GMO-free supplies, so guaranteeing the GMO-free option for final consumers. We should all help create a network of consumers who reject GMOs. I'm quite sure that if we as consumers don't succeed in orchestrating a strong reaction which will have a big impact on the food market, then in a couple of years' time we will no longer have GMO-free food available to us. That is why, apart from the major organisations like Greenpeace, which I'm representing here, we need a strong opposition movement among consumers. Greenpeace cannot win this battle either alone or by allying itself with other major green organisations. Individually we can do almost nothing. We can just inform people, we can give the problem our attention, we can even do something spectacular to catch media attention and so help the spread of information. The real power is in the hands of each of us as consumers. Let's hope we can manage to stop this damn market!

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)