GMO foods: back on the table for discussion

GMO foods: back on the table for discussion

By Roger Carvajal Saravia

It is striking that to approve GMO authorizations in various countries only the data of the companies that produce transgenics are used as evidence of safety. Such was the case of Bolivia, that during the government of Mesa Gisbert the approval of Roundup Ready Soy was instructed, under pressure from the producers, despite the fact that in express meetings from the delegation of the University and the Ministry of Health it was warned of the risks (which were later proven) both to SENASAG officials, who used as a scientific basis for safety precisely the studies of the Monsanto company (producer of the seed and glyphosate), as well as those of the then Ministry of Sustainable Development.

At the request of some producers from Santa Cruz to authorize the introduction and sowing of transgenic corn, under the argument of a better yield that allows meeting the current demand - which, according to them, would not be covered with conventional varieties - it once again incorporates the subject of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on the public agenda for debate.

What are transgenic products?

Undoubtedly, transgenesis is a biotechnological procedure that has represented an important advance in obtaining biological resources, especially for human health. Such is the case of the production of insulin and cytokines in bacteria or of antibodies in beans. In these cases, genes that come from human cells - pancreatic b cells or lymphocytes, in the cases mentioned - are inserted into cells of other species with a high capacity for reproduction and production (usually highly studied bacteria such as E. coli). The proteins generated are purified and their structure is strictly identical to that of humans, so that their administration does not involve any risk to health; on the contrary, it solves problems related to the difficulty of obtaining these biological agents by other means. In the case of so-called transgenic foods, the picture is different: genes from other species are incorporated into the species for food consumption, such is the case of the Bt gene of a bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) that codes for a toxin (C RAI- 1) that kills insects; This toxin is present in food and when it is attacked by the insect, in its different evolutionary stages, severe damage occurs in its intestine. This in the case of corn (Bt corn) transgenic plant resistant to attack by Diptera larvae.

The other relevant case is that of soy or corn varieties in which a gene is incorporated that makes them resistant to a herbicide (glyphosate). This gene also comes from a bacterium and codes for an enzyme (Shikimate-synthase) that replaces the original one of the plant and does not interact with the herbicide, unlike the natural enzyme that does and, as a consequence, is altered by complete the metabolism of the plant. By applying glyphosate to "normal" plants all die except for the transgenic variety which is now resistant to glyphosate. As an effect of this fact, the use of labor for weeding within the sowing and harvesting of soybeans or corn is reduced. Both products - the seed of the transgenic variety and the herbicide - are provided by the same company. In summary, transgenic foods synthesize molecules that are foreign to both the species that produces the food and the species that consumes it. These molecules are mixed with all the components of these foods and thus are ingested. Likewise, it is not possible to know if the incorporated gene only produces these molecules (the toxin and the bacterial enzyme, in the examples discussed) since the possibility of "displaced reads" of the new nucleotide sequence of the gene's DNA cannot be excluded. incorporated or of the complementary sequence, reading that may give rise to other unknown - not natural - proteins with unknown effect. As the latter is only a possibility, its demonstration requires extensive and in-depth probabilistic studies that have not yet been given.

Health Effects

The possibility that transgenic foods affect the health of consumers is something that worries locals and strangers, precisely because of their composition that includes foreign molecules to food and that, therefore, are alien to the co-evolution process that it has mediated our relationship with the species that fulfill the role of food in nature.

For manufacturers, the evidence that these products are toxic in the consumer population does not exist. But it must be remembered that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. In other words, there are no independent studies that show that transgenic products are safe; the few reports on its safety actually discuss the fact that there are no reports of harm to consumers. This will obviously not be possible, since to demonstrate damage to an organ and associate it with the consumption of these foods, extensive statistical studies are required to dissociate the causes of these affectations, since the different pathologies may be the same in the face of different causes. However, in the case of corn, specifically Star link corn (which was once part of a North American donation), which incorporates the Cry9C toxin, the rejection made by the US FDA (Food and Drug Agency) for human consumption due to its allergenic effects and intestinal affectation - which, like all allergies, does not occur in all, as corresponds to a probabilistic fact that depends on the subject and their biological circumstances - which determined that this product was picked up from the market in the USA (1).

It seems important to note that the investigations that show the safety of transgenic foods are carried out in laboratories of the producing companies themselves (2) (3), or in laboratories hired by them; This has always generated suspicions in consumers, in agricultural producer organizations and in some governments. So much so that a German court forced Monsanto, a company that manufactures transgenic seeds and glyphosate, to show its raw data from the research carried out in its laboratories, to show the safety of transgenic corn in rats. An independent group of scientists re-examined said data and applied appropriate statistical procedures, after which it was evidenced - unlike the one published by the company - that there were hepatic and nephrotoxic effects as well as drastic changes in blood chemistry (triglycerides) and in renal excretion (4) in rats that consumed transgenic products. In other words, in their own investigations toxicity of transgenic corn was observed, information that was not disclosed by the company. Recently, other experimental investigations in animals carried out in different laboratories have shown different degrees of affectation in different organs and systems (5). Likewise, it was demonstrated in experimental models that there are alterations in the immune response in elderly and emaciated animals that consumed transgenic corn (6); Similar but less noticeable effects were found in young animals (7). Disorders in the reproductive capacity of animals that consumed these products were also reported in studies carried out in Austrian laboratories (8). What has not been detected is the existence of a greater allergenic potency of transgenic soybeans in clinical studies (9, 10), despite the fact that at an experimental level the ability of transgenic soy to induce immune responses mediated by IgE, antibody typical of responses against allergenic substances (11).

For its part, the data on the safety of glyphosate (the herbicide) have been obtained by laboratories hired by the companies that produce the herbicide. However, these (Craven Labs and Industria Biotest Laboratories) were accused of fraud by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), condemning their employees to prison and millions of dollars in fines for said laboratories, for falsifying the data (12,13,14). On the other hand, the toxicity of glyphosate both in human cells and in species of flora and fauna has been shown by several recent studies, among which those that show its genotoxic (mutagenic) effect demonstrated by modern molecular and cellular biology procedures ( 15,16,17), as well as its inducing effect of oxidative stress (18), damage to mononuclear cells of the blood (19), induction of cell death in embryonic and placental cells (20) including the affectation of their hormonal function or endocrine (21). In short, multiple toxic effects on health, demonstrated in different organs and systems, both by accidental exposures and intoxications and by effects from consumption in contaminated food, are cited in different reviews (22,23)

In line with the above, the association between glyphosate exposure and the presence of cancer has been demonstrated in various scientific works. In successive epidemiological studies the association with non-Hodking lymphoma (increase in the frequency of cases in the population of exposed subjects, compared to the unexposed population), was demonstrated in Sweden (24,25,26) and Canada (27) and the association with multiple myeloma in the US (28,29). Such studies have received complaints and questions from the company producing the seeds and the herbicide, which were widely contested by the authors (30,31). For its part, the relationship between glyphosate and cancer was also supported by laboratory studies on the skin of experimental animals (32).

Finally, it should be noted that the genetic manipulation carried out in transgenic corn has linked the Bt gene to another gene, used as a genetic marker to monitor the process of construction of the transgenic product, which produces resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics (including ampicillin) ; The possibility of incorporating this gene into the intestinal bacteria of those who consume the food, thus inducing the presence of strains resistant to these therapeutic agents (which entails potential dangers in infectious pathologies), has been demonstrated in experimental models under controlled conditions ( 33). In this order, it should be remembered that there are varieties of maize (Ex .: Bt 176) that have both the Bt toxin gene (CryA (b), the bar gene of a streptomycete, which provides resistance to glyphosate and the bla TEM gene which codes for a b-lactamase that, as reported, would give the microbes in the intestinal flora resistance to ampicillin and other b-lactam antibiotics, which triples the properties of corn, but also the risks.

Notwithstanding all the foregoing, it is striking that to approve authorizations in various countries only the data of the companies that produce transgenics are used as evidence of safety. Such was the case of Bolivia, that during the government of Mesa Gisbert the approval of Roundup Ready Soy was instructed, under pressure from the producers, despite the fact that in express meetings from the delegation of the University and the Ministry of Health it was warned of the risks (which were later proven) both to SENASAG officials, who used as a scientific basis for safety precisely the studies of the Monsanto company (producer of the seed and glyphosate), and those of the then Ministry of Sustainable Development ( 3. 4). In Europe, the only country that authorized the planting of GMOs is Spain, with the backing of its Minister of Science and Technology, who, interestingly, is President of the Biotechnology company Genetrix that works on the subject and has been an advisor to the industrial sector. in the biotechnology field.

For all the above, it is clear that, based on abundant scientific data, neither GMOs nor glyphosate are harmless for humans, so it is totally pertinent that the Bolivian State subscribes to the precautionary principle (35 ), within the framework of its mission to take care of the health of the population and, as will be seen later, to take care of the ecosystem and the genetic heritage of the country.

Effects on Nature

Risks to the ecosystem come from both GM seeds and herbicide. Pollen from transgenic plants is released and can disperse to contact and contaminate non-transgenic plants (36). Although some works and personal opinions mention that pollens travel short distances (only hundreds of meters) palynological studies (37) show that this biological material can rise to great heights and travel enormous distances with the help of air currents and different meteorological conditions (pollens can be detected at more than 5000 m above the crops); transport can also be through biological vectors such as pollinating insects. This has serious consequences since, as shown in Mexico (38) and in Spain (39), this gene flow through pollen can produce other transgenic varieties at the expense of traditional ones. The scientific demonstration of this fact (with corn transgenes) was carried out in crops in the Sierra de Oaxaca, Mexico (37); this study was questioned by different researchers (38,39); However, later research widely confirmed the findings (40,41) and the existence of pollen contamination to local varieties in Mexico is now fully accepted (43,44). It was also known that those who questioned the validity of these investigations were hiding their affiliation from subsidiary laboratories of the companies producing transgenics (45). Further studies led to the evaluation of the complicated situation of Mexican growers in the presence of transgenes in a country where corn is of high importance for food security (46,47,48).

Pollination pollination is especially serious for our country in the case of corn, since it can mean the loss of a valuable genetic heritage as Bolivia is one of the centers of origin and diversification. To substantiate the latter, it must be remembered that one of the major criteria to define the centers of origin and / or diversification of a species is the number of varieties or races of the same, adapted in a region; Under this criterion, as Bolivia has 77 races, Peru 66 and Mexico 59 (49), the possibility of the central-Andean origin of this cereal is wide; What is clear is that the largest corn diversification process in the world was carried out in this region. Therefore, it would be expected that in the case of sowing transgenic corn, due to the effect of pollen contamination, in relatively short periods the genome of all cultivated and wild varieties -that is, of the species- will be affected, with which the characteristics of origin they may be modified. This, in turn, has different cultural and social connotations since it affects the product of the work of centuries in the traditional genetic management of the peasants and indigenous peoples of America (35). Given this, it should be remembered that the foregoing is provided for in the Cartagena agreement that penalizes the planting of genetically modified varieties when it comes to species that in the country in question is a center of origin or diversification and provides measures against the affectation of traditional agricultural processes (50,51).

For its part, the genetic erosion that occurs due to the natural tendency of growers to plant one variety (due to its commercial advantages) and to forget the others, constitutes a widely recognized mechanism for the loss of agro-biodiversity, already proven in other countries. (35). Much effort and expense are required to recover the sowing of non-commercial varieties, in order to maintain the genetic reserve that includes varieties with different advantages and potentialities. Among these potentialities, those that can make it possible to face the increasingly frequent eventualities that emerge as a consequence of both climate change and the health needs of the population (nutraceuticals or foods with medicinal activity) stand out. This situation was reflected in recent events in Bolivia (52).

It is important to note that the herbicide application procedures - particularly in large monocultures where fumigation is by plane - constitute mechanisms of contamination to people, plant species (all those that come into contact are eliminated), macro and microscopic animals, and microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa) that inhabit and give life to the soil, so the water for irrigation is also affected, which carries the chemical agent to the superficial and deep aquifers. In this order, the loss of biodiversity in areas adjacent to crops implies a decrease in the benefits granted by the so-called Ecosystem Services; Among these, we can mention the decrease in the capture of environmental water (which leads to processes of reduction of humidity and drought), the elimination of natural biocontrollers (species that include other species that are potentially dangerous in their diet if they exceed in quantity in a given area), pollinators, etc. These effects can be produced both by the Bt toxin and by glyphosate and its additives (53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60). Such affectation in some cases is greater by the remains of the Bt plants than by the pesticides used by farmers (61).

All of the above is reinforced by the sowing practice that accompanies the technological package that is purchased with transgenics: the promotion of extensive monoculture that eliminates forest boundaries and other remains of local biodiversity, which can sometimes lead to the appearance of various plagues, thus reversing the intended purpose (62). On the other hand, the affectation of animal species by the herbicide has also been reported (12). Likewise, the sterilization of the soil due to the affectation of the microflora has been denounced in different forums in which the need to use increasing amounts of fertilizers to maintain their productivity has been highlighted. For its part, the presence of DNA from transgenic varieties in the soil of already harvested areas has been demonstrated (56), with which the possibility that soil bacteria can incorporate foreign genes and transfer them to other plants and microorganisms, which would increase the risks of horizontal contamination.

Notwithstanding all of the above, in various scientific fields the technological advance that genetically modified organisms signify is widely valued in the perspective of expanded production with less use of pesticides (66,67); Interestingly, these positions argue "the little damage" that these products can cause to the local ecosystem, which is understandable if it is considered that in the regions where they claim their use, the species in question (corn and soy) do not exist as heritage. genetic (Germany and Brazil), and the impact on other living beings is not as important as what the economic interest may mean for each region.

Effects on production performance

Regarding production yield, it is assumed that this is higher in transgenic corn due to its resistance to screwworm (Ostrinia nubilabis) and fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda). However, recent studies carried out in Argentina (68) show that the yield does rise, with respect to its isotype, but not significantly (3%) and is lower with respect to other non-transgenic hybrid varieties. For the rest, there are bioregulatory agents in the local market for organic products and inputs that control these pests (metarrizium and Baciillus turingensis itself, but only fumigated, not incorporated into food), which are produced in Bolivia (and even are They export to Argentina) and currently control thousands of Has. organic production (69). For its part, the Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Innovation INIAF) has obtained seeds with a higher yield than the seeds of transgenic corn (70) that are already reproducing and can well be used in the following sowings. All of the above shows that food sovereignty (not dependence on the outside), which includes the need to produce our seed, is openly confronted with the sowing of transgenic foods since their seed must necessarily be bought for each harvest. This means strict dependence on a technological package that, in addition to the seed and the herbicide, includes a whole mode of production that not only does not agree with what a small producer has always done, but also introduces it into a new scheme that is openly contradictory to their ancestral knowledge, which is responsible for the conservation and expansion of the agro-biodiversity that the world currently enjoys. Otherwise, if the producer uses reproductive units without paying, he can be prosecuted. The same can happen if conventional maize is unintentionally contaminated and genes from transgenic seeds are found in it, as shown by examples from Mexico and Spain (34,35).

In another order, it should be noted that the persistence of the herbicide in the soil, favored by the conditions of dryness and pH (typical of our soils) drastically affects rotational crops (71), such a circumstance is not compatible with traditional cultivation practices. .

Finally, it will be important to note that the C.P.E. In its Art. 409 it defines that the importation of transgenic organisms must be regulated by law, which means that a broad consultation process must be established to formulate the norm that, if applicable, can protect the importation of transgenic corn. As long as this does not occur, the Biosafety Regulation is in force (which has the force of law since it is part of the components of our country in the Cartagena Agreement) which establishes that, since there are elements that show a lack of safety for people or for the ecosystem, the State must adhere to the precautionary principle that constitutes the prerogative of any country. Likewise, it is necessary to remember that the affectation of the genetic heritage by this type of products is a fact that widely contradicts the recently approved Law of Mother Earth (Art. 7.2) and everything stipulated in the Decisions of the Peoples' Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth that occurred in Tiquipaya, Cochabamba. It also conflicts with the Law for the Regulation and Promotion of Ecological Non-Timber Agricultural and Forest Production, and with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), of which Bolivia is a signatory. It will also be important to note that as corn is a product that, in its current phenotype in its hundreds of varieties, has been achieved over centuries by our indigenous ancestors, its defense will surely be led by these peoples and their leaders, in against any economic interest linked to the transnational seed companies, an interest that (as seen before) has always been present, openly or underhanded, in all the processes that promote the business of transgenics through agreements with entities local. Fortunately, the president of ANAPO (an entity that for some unexplainable reason has to do with the request to plant transgenic corn) is of indigenous roots, which, it is hoped, will balance the debate in favor of our genetic heritage, even more so if there are scientific arguments that amply show the dangerousness of the package that is intended to be introduced.

Roger Carvajal Saravia He is an Emeritus Researcher at UMSA, Dr. (Ph.D.) in Biological and Biomedical Sciences (Molecular Biology) and was Vice Minister of Science and Technology

La Razon - Bolivia - June 2011


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Video: Kiran Shaw discuss the Pros u0026 Cons of Biotechnology with Sadhguru (July 2021).