Piante geneticamente modificate - inglese

It is discouraging to be continually swimming against the tide, in order to affirm the most elementary notions of common sense, but how can we accept the complete overturning of reality?
Using the techniques of genetic recombining, foodstuffs are safer, and at the same time it is possible to keep the problem of parasites under control without the need of pesticides. In addition, by means of improved quality and improved production, important economic benefits can be enjoyed. The risk of creating dependence on the large multinationals is not a real problem; only if we are unable to safeguard our local/regional varieties will we end up becoming dependent on foreign patents.
Faced with the great opportunities offered by new technology, we should welcome such advances, finally agriculture is able to expand beyond present day limits, at the same time the pressure on the environment can be reduced. In addition, the genetically modified plants will make a contribution towards defeating hunger in the poorer countries. Today many different countries are already enjoying great advantages from the use of these plants. Meanwhile in Italy, many environmentalists, practically all the press, and most politicians, both right and left wing have adopted a hostile approach towards genetically modified plants.
It is not the first time that environmentalists who are against the market economy and against progress, deny the reality of the facts, and alarm public opinion in order to force politicians to take measures which penalize the economy. It has already happened many times, and this no longer surprises us.
However, in Italy many farmers’ associations and even the Minister of Agriculture have intervened, both in this government and the preceding one. The reason, protect
organically cultivated crops and protect the “made in Italy” in the foodstuffs sector.
With this shortsighted policy, however, they can expect to obtain exactly the opposite results.

The uses and advantages of genetically modified plants.
We often hear about genetically modified plants. There is a great difference of opinion among those who proclaim the many advantages, and those who claim that they can lead to risks for the health, the enviroment, biodiversity and even for the economy. Who is right? Are the genetically modified plants really unnatural and dangerous?
To tell the truth, it is actually the normal cultivated plants that are not so natural.
They are, in fact, the result of interbreeding and selectioning, and normally do not resemble very closely the wild varieties that they derive from. For example, apples were originally the size of cherries, corn cobs were smaller than present day heaads of wheat, and the latter were composed of only three grains thousands of years ago.
Even agriculture is hardly natural: the cultivation of one single crop, in an area in which there were previously many varieties of animals and plants is almost going against nature (however it is necessary for the procuction of those foodstuffs which we need). In addition, when we cultivate a plant we expose it to the attacks of parasites, insects and viruses, all of which are able to evolve and adapt very quickly.
This explains why cultivated plants need their ever increasing doses of pesticides and
anti- parasites, in the end we reach the stage when it becomes impossibe to prevent the destruction of the harvest. Therefore, we can no longer limit ourselves to conserving our famous varieties as they exist at present, if we do nothing, they are destined to disappear in the end.
The so called organic agriculture is no exception. The plants which can be cultivated
without chemical poisons are few, and and generally we are speaking about plants which were cultivated over a limited period either because they were of little interest
or because they were substituted with other varieties considered to be superior.
If we start to recultivate them it means taking a step backwards, both in terms of quality and also of quantity, and would mean exposing them to parasite attacks.
Organic farming excludes certain types of pesticides, the synthetic type, while allowing others; sometimes certain treatments can be avoided by making use of procedures which prevent the reproduction of insects, a method however, which can only be used in a limited number of cases. Organic farming, is therefore, not the solution but only a palliative.
But what can we do to make plants resistant to parasites?
Before the event of genetic engineering attempts were made at cross-fertilization with other immune varieties. However, it is very difficult to obtain a hybrid which is resistant to a certain type of parasite and at the same time maintains the qualities of the original plant. Even if, after many attempts, the operation enjoys some success, the result will still be a different plant to that which we wish to save.
The solution to this fundamental problem lies in the techniques of genetic manipulation. All that needs to be done is to identify a species which is resistant to a certain parasite, isolate the gene which confers the immunity, and then transfer it into the DNA of the plant.
For example the tomato, San Marzano, was attacked some years ago by a virus. At the beginning the damage was modest, but then the illness became more serious and today destroys all the harvest. In 1999, thanks to the addition of a single gene, it became immune to this virus. Unfortunately, due to the prejudices which exist with respect to genetically modified crops, it has not been possible to cultivate them, and they are substituted with other varities of tomatoes which are called “San Marzano type”, produced with seeds bought from abroad. The result: an important element of Italian cuisine, and the pizza is not like it used to be!
There are over thirty typically Italian varieties (Carnaroli rice, red chicory from Rovigo, Nero d’Avola grapes etc) which can not be cultivated or which are cultivated with ever increasing difficulty due to their vulnerability towards parasites. However, as in the case of San Marzano, the problem could be easily resolved.
In addition, with genetic engineering, it is possible to obtain plants with improved nutritional and productive qualities. In fact it is much simpler to obtain an improvement adding another quality to a plant which otherwise remains the same, than to try and create a new quality through selective cross fertilization. In particular it is possible to enrichen the plants with vitamins, proteins and antioxidants, and the cultivation can be adapted to even the most difficult terrain and climate. Finally the genetically modified plants can be used to create vaccines and medical products.
Insulin for diabetics is already being obtained in this way.
Then why do genetically modified plants meet with such opposition, especially in Italy? Are they really “Frankenstein plants” so unnatural as to lead to terrible risks?

Genetic engineering.
The techniques of genetic engineering are a recent conquest, and like all new things can give rise to fear and suspicion. However, after over twenty years of research, many countries have decided that genetically modified plants are safe and have begun to cultivate them. At the same time however, many environmentalists are strongly against them.
The criticism regards possible damage to health, to the environment and to bio-
biversity, and the very nature of this manipulation, which, they claim, makes the plant anomalous and completely unnatural.
And yet, the criticisms and fears, at a scientific level seem to be unfounded. But they still manage to create general aprehension among the public who have been so misinformed about these plants that about half of them (in Italy) are convinced that genes are present only in the modified plants and not in others.
First of all, therefore, it is necessary to explain that all living things, and therefore all plants have DNA, genes and chromosones. Every plant has about 30,000 genes and thses are always a result of the mixing of the parents patrimony, though it is necessary to add that the transmission of genes from parent to child is not the only mechanism at work in natural evolution.
During the existance of an individual, random mutations occur, due either to natural radiation or to the possible presence of mutagenic substances, which can affect all genes in equal measure. Other random modifications occur, with varying degrees of fequency, during cellular replication. When one cell is born from another, an event which happens millions of times in the course of an existance, the long sequence of genes is copied and the copy passes in dowry form to the cell daughter. But, during the transcription errors can happen completely at random.
Finally, the transfer and exchange of esogenic genes, those genes which belong to different species, is frequent in nature. Many viruses and bacteria are specialized in the transfer of some of their genes into the DNA of the plant. In this way they are forced to produce protein which is used by the infesting agent.
The techniques which are used by man to improve the genetic patrimony of cultivated plants do no more than copy what happens already in nature. The oldest method is that of artifical selection, the plants are cross fertilized with each other, then a hybrid is selected. Another method is that of causing random mutation, with strong doses of radiation or with the exposure of plants to chemically mutagenic substances. Plants with their DNA modified in this way then undergo a selection to identify advantageous mutation.
All the cultivate varieties present today have been obtained in this way. But today we can go even further, we can manipulate a single gene, copying what happens in nature with bacteria and viruses. Of fundamental importance is the genetic map, and the singling out of genes which carry out specific functions. The rest of the work, the transfer of the useful gene into the plant is relatively simple, and various techniques can be used, one of which is to make the bacteria carry out the work. Genetic manipulation is, therefore no more unnatural than selective cross fertilization, or than mutagenisis, but with respect to these techniques it allows us to obtain results in safety, in less time, and with less uncertainty.
In particular it becomes simple to make a plant resistant to parasites without altering its characteristics. Practically all that needs to be done is to identify a similar plant
resistant to the parasite (its better to use a closely related species, the operation is made easier) isolate the gene which confers immunity and the job is done. All that remains are the checks to avoid any undesirable effects.

The accusation levelled at genetically modified plants.
Here the question arises, what will happen when the parasites become resistant to the new genes. Do we not risk creating a problem without a solution. The answer comes from experience. After more than twenty years we can say that genetically modified plants are rarely attacked by parasites either new or old. But if this were to happen it would be sufficient to identify the gene which confers resistance in a like plant and
insert it into the DNA of the plant. In nature there will always be plants which have selectioned characteristics which are able to grant immunity to specific parasites.
Another criticism which is levelled at these plants, is that by means of their pollen, they are able to transfer esogeni genes to nearby vegetation, and if we are talking about weeds, they can become resistant to parasites.
In reality, there are many different conditions which determine whether a cultivated
field can disperse pollen or not, these conditions differ from plant to plant, and are easily monitored. To cite an example, rice pollen remains “live” for few minutes, and it can be dispersed within a radius of about ten centimetres while for corn the contamination can reach a distance of about ten metres. In reality the situation is not very different from the one that exists in traditional farming, and in this case any possible contamination has never raised any problems. Regarding weeds, using genetic manipulation it is possible to make a cultivated plant resistant to specific weedkillers, in this way we can choose the least damaging one and one which will degrade quickly.
Another accusation which is made with respect to genetically modified plants is that fragments of DNA can be conserved for long periods in clay soil, and that therefore
if “normal cultivation” takes place in a field where previously genetically modified crops were grown, then the new plants will incorporate the esogeni present in the soil
If it is true that certain types of soil can conserve genetic material, then it is also true that this material is never absorbed by plant roots. If there were even the slightest possibility that this could happen then the genetic patrimony of crops that grew in a certain area would tend to be uniform and in the end there would only be one type of plant. Nothing like this has ever been seen.
It has also been suggested that if we eat genetically modified corn, the added esogen gene could be absorbed by our stomache and our intestine and in the end in could
be added to our DNA. However, once again there is no possibility that this could occur. If such a thing were possible then, every time we ate any salad, we would risk
the incorporation of the gene which synthetizes chorofil. If this happened we would all turn green!
Another criticism of the genetically modified plants, is that, during the moment in which a gene is added to a plant in order to provide immunity from a certain parasite, a chemical substance is produced which is poisonous for the aggressor. If this substance is poisonous for the parasite then it will also be dangerous for us. In this way each time that we eat a certain fruit or vegetable then we will also be gulping down who knows what kind of poison.!
But this is, once again an objection without substance. In fact if a vegetable end up on our plate it means that it has managed to grow and mature without being devoured by a parasite. Seeing that there are many parasites, this means that the vegetable has incorporated who only knows what kind or immunizing agent. In fact in the majority of cases the chemical substances produced by the plants for their defence are harmless for us, and in the case of foodstuffs and aromatic plants they can be useful and curative. The addition of another gene conferring immunity, which has been carefully checked for any possible harmful effects will therefore not lead to increased risk but, on the other hand can lessen the risks due to the fact that we will no longer be spraying poisonous pesticides onto the fields.
Consequently genetically modified crops pose fewer risks to our health, even with respect to organically produced crops, considering that these grow less healthily and undergo fewer inspections. The fact that a gene ends up inside a plant in different ways does not lead to increased danger.
From a certain point of view, all genes are equal. They are made up of sequences of four different characters and contain the construction design from which all living being are made. They resemble computer programmes which are composed of long series of two characters, 0 and 1.
It is like a programme with binary code, the fact that the gene contains groups of instructions which are identical to those present in other forms of life neither creates
a problem nor a rarity. In fact a high percentage of human DNA is the same as that of numerous other living species, including plants and yeasts. For example chimpanzees share 97% of their genes with us, while the little worm Cenorabditis elegans, shares 7,000 of its 17,000 genes with us. Adding a gene taken from a like plant can not transform it into a new Frankenstein.

The country which is most fervently anti genetically modified crops
Thanks to genetic recombination new farming methods for the future are being created. The result is more abundant, healthier and improved products without the need for pesticides and generally life is made easier.
Italy is the only country in the world which is not taking advantage of the situation. Other countries, after twenty years of experimentation, have come to the conlusion that genetic engineering reduces health risks and offers enormous opportunities, cotton, corn, soya and rape are already being cultivated on a large scale.
China and India are about to adopt the genetically modified rice plants. Even Europe. after initial apprehension, are gradually up to these new products.
On the contrary, in a country in which everything happens upside down, (see the account of the travels of Gulliver)
a hostile reaction still prevails. In fact, organic farmers have joined ranks with the economists who are against the market economy and against progress, in an attempt to eliminate competion of improved more competitve products. The result is that Italy has become the most hostile country in the world with respect to genetically modified plants.
The fact is, that organic products are sold at rather high prices, even though they do not offer any advantages for our health (perhaps some disadvantage), and for this reason some people think that the future of Italian farming lies in the expansion of this profitable market. This illusion is contradicted by the growing percentage of organicallly produced fruit and vegetables which are bought abroad by the large supply networks due to the fact that the prices are lower. Moreover, if the typical Italian products are not improved and safeguarded against parasites they will gradually be substituted by imported products.
The ban on genetically modified crops, is, therefore, shortsighted and damaging, in an attempt to defend organic crops, which cover a mere 1,5% of the total area under cultivation, our farming system is being forced out of the market. Not to mention the consequences that consumers pay, having to buy products of inferior quality at higher prices, while in the rest of the worl the exact opposite is happening.
The consequences are paradoxical. Italy is a member of the WTO, an international
Commercial organization, and as such cannot prevent the import of products without a satisfactory reason. From a scientific point of view there is no justification for banning genetically modified products and the shelves of our supermarkets are already full of foreign products which derive from genetically modified crops. In addition practically all the imported cotton and feedstuffs are g.m.
To sum up, we cannot cultivate these plants but we cannot avoid importing and eating them.

The position of the Church and of the scientists.
Some people might be led to thinking that the problem of safety is still open to discussion, given the strong opposition even within the institutions. This is not the case. The eighteen scientific societies of importance and the National Accademy of Science, which includes about 10,000 scientists, have issued a common document which can be read on the site Società Italiana di Genetica Agraria. www.siga.unina.it In this document we can read that “a juxtaposition between natural and g.m. plants is often observed. This position appears difficult to sustain, unless we are to consider the nature of farming itself to be unnatural. The new forms of technology, imitating processes which occur in nature, allow controlled modification of the DNA which is safer and more easily monitored than what is at present accepted because it is considered to be natural. The probability that long term effects, different from those associated with traditionally cultivated crops, will arise in the long term does not seem to be feasible.
At this point a last question remains. Is it justifiable to modify living species, or create new ones, as if we were in competion with God? Might this not be a good reason for rejecting this disturbing new technology?
The answer comes from the church. According to what is written in the Social Doctrine of the Church, which all catholics are expected to observe “the Christian vision of creation leads to a positive judgement regarding human intervention in nature, including all living beings and at the same time calls for responsibility”.
The Pontiff Academy of Science, made up of several Nobel prize winners has expressed itself more explicitly. A document published in 12 May 2003 states that there are no risks associated with g.m. plants, stating that “all plants which are cultivated today are genetically modified and that gene exchange is very common in nature and is an integral part of evolution”. Finally the church considers that biotechnology is a fundamental tool for defeating famine and that scientists should be involved with finding the best solutions to the urgent problems of health and nutrition.

Ferrara, 20 May 2005