Transgenics: the controversy is served at your table

Transgenics: the controversy is served at your table

By Natalia Viola

"You have to get off this train" - Alicia Massarini (Conicet)
and not food, that this technology implied the large-scale use of aqrochemicals and that it can cause unpredictable side effects on health. "We must recover diversified and food production," he proposes.

- How did the transgenic appear in the field?

- Transgenesis began to be experienced in the 70s with the idea of ​​studying biological processes. Insert genes from other species into animals or plants and see how they behave. Shortly after, they realized that it could be applied to crops of commercial value. The first transgenesis of commercial application has to do with the introduction of genes that confer resistance to a herbicide and genes that allowed the production of the BT toxin (corn) for the plant to produce its own insecticide.

- Are they healthier?

- The transgenic seed did not improve its nutritional value. The discourse of those who promoted this was that the quality of the product would be improved, but the transgenics in the market confer an economic advantage on the producer. They are not environmentally friendly nor are they food.

- Are there studies?

- The most conclusive are those of Gilles-Eric Séralini, from France, who fed rats for two years (life span) with transgenic corn and recorded that tumors, degenerative liver and kidney diseases appeared that are normal towards the end of life, but in rats they appeared in half a year. It concludes that this diet alters cellular and metabolic cycles and produces anticipation of serious pathologies.

GMOs and agrochemicals appear, in experience, as an indissoluble marriage. The first is the reason for the second. “Industrial agriculture already existed in our country before the arrival of transgenics: the tendency to monoculture, the lack of rotation and the use of chemicals. What this technology does is aggravate the damage ”, clarifies Massarini. The jump to soy meant that the use of glyphosate went from 1 million liters (before the year 96) to 200 million liters per year. Not counting other more powerful herbicides due to the resistance of weeds. "The issue is not the misuse of herbicides, but this technology brings it implicitly. If you grow 20 million hectares of GM soybeans, obviously, the use of this herbicide is inevitable ”.

Massarini warns that in the discussion about the use of agrochemicals, we must not forget other types of problems that arise in the intervention of the genome (the set of genes of a certain organism). “The harmony that this genome has as an integrated system is broken. This can bring unpredictable and non-measurable side effects. For example, the production of proteins or substances that are altered in metabolism and that function as toxins that can accumulate ”, he explains.

- Is it possible not to consume transgenics?

- In Argentina, transgenic foods are not labeled. The mass diet (merchandise offered by supermarkets) contains products that come from GMOs such as soy lecithin, present in cookies, yogurts and desserts.

- Can the production model be changed?

- The discourse of those who promote this is that we cannot stop getting on this train. I say: we cannot continue uploaded because it will lead to an environmental and health disaster. The alternatives are many, not just what we had. Values ​​and food sovereignty must be recovered.

- What about food production?

- What we produce is not food, but commodities to export and feed the livestock of the central countries and China. It is a fallacy that people talk about how we are helping to alleviate world hunger, because hunger is becoming more and more notable. The biologist assures that her position is quite resisted in the scientific world. But the claims of the fumigated peoples of the interior of the country have allowed them to open up the debate.

"They are suffering the pain of the damages produced by this model," he adds. Thus, transgenesis shows its less promising face. “The problem with this technology is that it cannot be used for good because it is designed, thought and used to maximize economic gain. Everything else is collateral damage. " PhD in Biological Sciences (UBA) and associate researcher at Conicet in Evolutionary Biology. "It cannot be produced any other way" - Atilio Castagnaro (Obispo Colombres Experimental Station)

The first thing Atilio Castagnaro says is that 99% of what we eat comes from a genetic improvement process. Also, that transgenesis does not imply a misuse of agrochemicals, although it recognizes that it does happen. It concludes that Argentina cannot do without this technology because it would be "shooting itself in the head."

- How was the transgenic crop born?

- Until the mid-90s, conventional genetic improvement was done.

Then, genes by transgenesis begin to be introduced into plants in an industrial way. In the middle of that decade, the first Monsanto transgenic soybeans appeared and they also began to be sown in Argentina.
In 1996 the first transgenic soybeans landed in the country.

RR soy (for its acronym Round Up Ready, Monsanto's glyphosate resistant soy) from Nidera. "Soy cultivation begins to rise exponentially due to the advantage it had over conventional soy.

In five years, 90% of the country's soybeans are transgenic ”, explains Castagnaro.

The RR soybean seed has a gene from a soil bacterium. “It gives it a competitive advantage because that herbicide starts to be used to fight weeds. The protein is produced in the plant and glyphosate does not recognize it because it is an exogenous protein ”, he adds.

- The transgenic is accused of having massively used agrochemicals ...

- Transgenesis does not imply per se that I will use more agrochemicals, but it depends on how they are used. Agrochemicals are plant antibiotics. If you use indiscriminately (which is what has been done and is trying to change) the same thing happens with clinical antibiotics: resistant forms of the pathogen are produced and they stop acting. Not all of us who think of transgenesis as a technology that can and should be used agree on how it is done.

- What do you say about the consequences on the health of rural populations?

-Between '94 and '95 I said in an article in LA GACETA that it opened a question about the approval of a glyphosate-tolerant soybean, because it could lead to a misuse of herbicides. It is impossible to speak of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and not refer to the boom of agrochemicals that meant their release to the field. Castagnaro wants to make a difference: one thing is transgenic and another is the misuse of herbicides.

“If you ask me if glyphosate causes harm to the health of microorganisms and living beings, I will say yes. But let's talk at what levels and doses, "he says.

- Was it something that could happen?

- We geneticists said it, but those who sold the technology and some producers were blindfolded, because it was so magical that agronomy was over. We said that it could generate resistance to weeds, but the result was so spectacular that they adopted it and began to use it heavily. This does not mean that glyphosate should be stopped, but rather regulate its use and look for other alternatives.

- What alternative?

Build agrochemicals that do not have fossil origin. It is much better, but it is not natural. Nothing is natural, nor is organic farming natural. They are wrong if they say it is natural.

Castagnaro points out that the world demands more food production and that transgenics are the key. “If you want to do without transgenesis, you are shooting yourself in the head. You will never be able to produce otherwise, ”he says.

The history of GMOs claims that in a decade it went from the laboratory to the field. "The multinationals used Argentina as a testing laboratory and I think it has turned out very well."

- Very good for whom?

- Usually. We should take care of the health of the population. I am in favor of the claims, I am even a human rights activist. (N. of A: he is president of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, Tucumán delegation)

- What is the next step? Potato, transgenic cane?

- The transgenic sugar cane is in the last evaluation process, therefore there is still not a hectare.

The last instance, after environmental and human safety has passed, is to define if it is strategic for the country. Their sowing will not be released if it does not suit Argentina. It will be tolerant to glyphosate and glufosinate.

Agronomist and doctor specialized in Molecular Plant Biology. Head of the Biotechnology section of the Experimental Station (Eeaoc) and member of Conabia (National Advisory Commission for Agricultural Biotechnology).

"We experiment every time we consume" Soledad Barruti investigated the Argentine food industry (her book is called "Malcomidos") and wrote 464 pages that, after reading them, can end the appetite.

But they open the desire to know more about that which reaches our table. “Today we cannot say that we eat GMOs alone. We eat hyper-processed products with transgenic soy and corn ingredients ”.

- Where do you find them?

- An example: the most common form of sweetening in the industry is high fructose corn syrup, which was born as a cheap alternative to sugar thanks to the boom in the cultivation of transgenic corn.

- How do we know that it does not harm health?

- When the transgenic products were launched, there were no more than 90 days of studies. We are experiencing ourselves all the time when we consume them. Saying what generates something we consume is very difficult, because you are not exposed only to food but to a lot of things (environmental, your own genetics).
Barruti assures that the tragedy of transgenics is not only expressed in food, but in the environment and in collective health.

“It is the first time that an organism has been created to resist an agrochemical.

This is an invitation to superspray - he adds - because the first soybeans were resistant to glyphosate; instead, now 2,4 D and glufosinate, more powerful herbicides. The transgenics were thought for the agrochemical. In the case of BT corn, it was patented in the US as an agrochemical, while soybeans, as a food ”.

- It is said that nothing we eat is natural ...

- It's one thing to say something is wild. The cow, the corn are products of the cross; A domestication process is not achieved overnight, but lasts for years and years. When they start to manipulate information at the convenience of companies, they want to convince you that the transgenic is the same.

- What is the difference?

- Transgenesis is novel, because they mix the gene of another species to create something new. Hybridization is generating improved species in laboratories so that they yield a certain amount. This was born with the green revolution in the 1960s. The leap that transgenesis generated is that you grab a gene from another species to introduce it and create something totally different. Confusion is convenient for speech.

Some data

- According to ArgenBio (Argentine Council for Information and Development of Biotechnology), in 2014 the total area planted with transgenics in Argentina was 24.3 million hectares.

- Argentina cultivates 13% of the surface with genetically modified organisms (GMO). This makes it the third largest GMO producing country, after the United States and Brazil.

- 10 European countries banned the commercialization of GMOs. The same as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

- In Tucumán, transgenic soybeans and corn are grown. According to maps of the Obispo Colombres Experimental Station, the total net area occupied with soybeans in the province for the 2013/2014 season was estimated at 173,070 hectares, while corn was 70,910 hectares. Both crops are located throughout the eastern zone and much of the south (La Cocha and Graneros). According to ArgenBio, in the country, 95% of the corn is transgenic and 100% of the soy from the 2013/14 campaign.

- The development of transgenics is divided between five companies: Monsanto, Syngenta (Novartis + AstraZeneca), Dupont, Bayer (Aventis) and Dow. In turn, these are the same companies that lead the sale of agrochemicals, according to Silvia Rivero (researcher at the International Foundation for Rural Development).

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