The GMO debate – once more unto the breach…

Photo Marion Guillou / President, Agreenium / December 12th, 2013

Genetically modified organisms have almost become taboo in Europe. The only two GMOs cultivated in the European Union, viz., the Amflora potato (BASF) used for paper-making and MON810 corn (Monsanto) are in dire straits. The potato has turned out to be a commercial failure, while the GM corn has run into moratoriums enforced by several state-member governments as a result of the pressure national public opinions. Elsewhere in the world, in contradistinction, genetically modified plants (GMP) are being cultivated on a large scale to overcome the various obstacles facing classic crops. Marion Guillou, President and CEO of the French Institut national de recherche agronomique (INRA) from 2004 to 2012, spoke to ParisTech Review about the benefit-risk balance for GM products and analyses for us the reasons she sees underpinning the continuing level of observable reticence.

ParisTech Review – When you were at the head of INRA and on several occasions, you defended the pursuit of research on GMOs. What benefits do you see as forthcoming from this technology?

Marion Guillou – It is impossible to talk about benefits and risks for GMOs in general, given that the term covers organisms that vary enormously, from genetically modified plants (GMPs), i.e., what the public at large refer to mostly when discussing GMOs, to GMOs incorporated in certain medicinal compounds.

This form of generalisation as seen throughout Europe is highly damaging to the cause. We must consider GMO technologies for what they are: a technology implemented to obtain a product. Then we can examine, product after product, use after use, the benefits that accrue and the associate risk factors. This benefit-risk analysis is specific for each plant variety and we can reach variable conclusions that are specific to difficulties facing a given society.

For example, in Brazil, transgenic soybean crops used extensively for ground that has been become fragile through wind or erosion. Weeding the plots requires little or no efforts: it correspond to a form of agriculture compliant with the aim to preserve soils. The benefit-risk balance in this instance has been deemed positive.

What other benefits have been shown over the past few years?

Well, there are numerous examples here, but let me just mention a few. Firstly, you can implement genetic engineering in much the same way as Mother Nature does, but do it faster. This is indeed one of the main attractions of GM technologies and using GMOs. For example, it is possible now to carry out an intra-specific hybridisation, i.e., introducing one or several genes already present in a given species. You can also achieve this by natural cross-fertilisation, but there are more unknowns involved and it takes longer.

This technique becomes all the more meaningful when a sanitary crisis occurs. It was the case in Africa when an illness called stem or black rust caused by a parasite Ug99 – threatened to destroy wheat crops. Under such circumstances it was primordial to very rapidly develop fungus resistant crop varieties, in this case GMPs, developed thanks to identification of the specific resistant genes.

Sometimes, we create a plant that cannot be obtained from simple cross-fertilisation of existing varieties. The most striking example here is Bt cotton (Monsanto), genetically modified cotton that produces a protein that proves toxic to bollworms, a parasite that attacks cotton plantations. Previously, farmers massively crop-dusted their cotton fields with phyto-sanitary products to fight this illness, but the process was not without danger to their own health and to the environment. The planting of the Bt cotton strain enabled farmers to dramatically reduce use of the other sanitary products. It is largely planted now in China, in India and in the USA.
There are also more focussed uses in the health sector: for example, a Limagrain subsidiary at Clermont-Ferrand, France, uses GMPs to obtain an enzyme that can alleviate symptoms of patients suffering from mucovicidosis. This is a case of using the plant’s metabolism to produce the active enzyme material. This kind of culture, of course, is conducted in confined, restricted areas.

The examples you have mentioned here have obvious public utility. But the benefits from GMOs seem to go mostly to the farmers and industrialists … would you care to comment?

Sure: there are purely commercial GMOs; the best known example being Roundup Ready plants (Monsanto) which are resistant to the weed-killer carrying the same name. The farmer who uses these plants sees his work-load simplified: he only needs to spray the wee-killer and only the GMO crop will survive since it is resistant. Of course the benefits here go to the company Monsanto who can promote marketing and sales of their Roundup Ready plants that resist the Monsanto weed-killer. However, we must be very wary and avoid over-use of this sort of GMO since there is an associate risk that the wild variety of plants will develop their own resistance. This has been observed in certain countries where these GMPs have been planted, in Canada and the USA notably and where the precaution was not taken to set up “refuge” areas, allocated specifically for non-GM crops.

The acquired resistance risk recalls another, largely designated by the anti-GMOs: the issue of plant dissemination, notably in fields neighbouring the experimental plots. End May this year, the discovery of GM wheat in the American State of Oregon, almost 10 years after Monsanto conducted experiments in this State, led to a degree of public outcry. Does this means that there are loopholes in terms of experimental crop safety measures?

I am not sure that the public at large were over-worried; nonetheless, the operators were really scared. Japan cancelled its imports and the European Commission recommended that tests be conducted on all wheat imported coming from the USA …

This episode shed s light on a paradoxical issue. Indeed two distinct paths are open when it comes to ‘designing’ a genetically modified plant.

You can produce, on one hand, a seed which, through selection techniques of generic engineering, you can ensure can have no descendants, i.e., is non-replicable. The seed is not fertile. This is an option which is taken for obvious commercial reasons since it forces the farmer to buy new seed for the next crop from the same supplier. This is what the anti-Monsanto tenets call the “terminator gene”; it was an innovation that ran counter to traditional and timeless crop farming practice and as such became an argument against the company Monsanto.

On the other hand you can choose the reverse option, but in this case there an obvious risk of residual possible reproduction and hence dissemination of the GM plant variety.

From Europe to India, the GMO issue – as far as the public apparently sees things – focusses largely on the anti-Monsanto debate. In October 2012, scientific journalist Michel Alberganti wrote: “A single company, Monsanto, has succeeded in obliterating the image of GMOs per se by intentionally creating a confusion with their utilisation”, the risk consequently being to adversely affect the pedagogical efforts made by the scientific community. Do you share his point of view?

This is a complicated problem-area and I can only offer a personal opinion. The fact is that in Europe and in particular in France (but also in certain developing countries) there is a strong opposition to GMOs, whereas the latter do not generate the same problems in the United States or in Asian countries generally speaking.

In my view, there is a degree of collusion of three subjects. The first relates to intellectual property rights. In Europe, the legal framework before the advent of GMOs was a sui generis, via certificates of Proprietary Variety Protection Certificates (PVPC) and this set the framework for the seed companies. The system enables the professionals of the sector to develop new seed strains from those obtained through previous innovations without having to ask permission from the original “designers” but paying the latter a right to exploit. Access to plant genetic heritage is therefore free, provided certain clauses are respected. This process is known as variety improvement. The arrival on the market place of patented species has cancelled out the free access possibility since if there is a patent, you also require the approval of the patent-holder to proceed with a variety improvement.

The second subject is the identity of the party who offers the plant on the market: public or private actor, with a given set of interests … and the final subject is the technique used, which in this case is genetic engineering.

The anti-GMO lobby is bent on linking the three subjects together, reducing the issue of GMOs to the sole Monsanto case. Here we have a company that uses patents, has a reputation of being a multi-national group that does not communicate and which implements GMO techniques and technologies. Indeed the term GMO designates a wide variety of entities, from GMOSs obtained in Nature itself to the introduction of animal genes in a plant. The technology, however, does not define the object and a minimum distinction needed to be made case by case. Mistaking technology with the object seem to me to hide a serious methodological flaw, to say the least.

Do I hear you clearly, saying the anti-GMO lobby deliberately fosters the obliteration?

It constitutes a communications strategy for the opponents, whose aim it is to fuel our indignation? But their stance is paradoxical. If it was really the Monsanto practices that raised problems, the opponents would have every interest to support and help alternate operators emerge, public bodies in particular. The latter do exist. There are, for example, UN organisations that produce genetically modified plants with a special property provision.

In Europe and notably in France, where opposition is particularly strong, any attempt to undertake research is targeted and there can be no room for any debate. The fate that befell INRA’s genetically modified vines planted near Colmar – at a time when I was head of the Institute – is symptomatic. The test plot was set out with full transparency, combatting the criticism levelled at other operators: the experiments were initiated by a public research establishment accompanied by a steering committee who supervised the work from A to Z, with no commercial aim whatsoever, etc.; and yet, despite these precautions, the vineyard plots were destroyed in 2010. And with them, our hopes and capacity to develop expertise on the subject.

Overseas the situation is completely different. In China, for example, the Government has a very clear strategy in favour of production off MBOs via Chinese public research, conducted by “clean” Chinese operators. The Chinese Academy for Agronomic Sciences (CAAS) is developing GMOs. India has likewise chosen this strategic orientation, developing capacities other than those of the corporate groups, in order not to be dependent on them (dependence of small-scale farmers on large-scale seed producers is a highly sensitive subject in these regions).

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This referred to active opponents, the militant “antis.” But where the European citizens are concerned, there is, nonetheless, a degree of distrust with respect to these topics…

Over and above the factors set out above, there are specific societal and cultural aspects. For example, the concept of ‘nature’ is not the same in Europe as it is in the USA, or in Brazil. Their concept of nature is “wide open spaces”: agricultural land is industrial, to the extent that it is fashioned and tended by man. In Europe where we have a much higher population density, agriculture and nature go hand in hand; altering one affects the other.

Beyond this, there is the usual reticence of the professional actors when it comes to externally sourced innovations and above all an approach to innovation that is not the same as in high growth countries. In Europe, any innovation does not relate directly to improving our day-to-day life style is distrusted to some degree since the public at large do not perceive its usefulness. In domains other than agriculture, we must note that certain GMOs are accepted without any problem by the public opinion, including in France. This was the case for example when we used (re)combinatory vaccines (therefore genetically engineered) to combat rabies. Towards the late 1980s, these vaccines were pulverised largely over forest in East France by helicopter and nobody complained. The reason probably was that the public understood the interest in doing so, knowing the potential danger of the rabies virus.

Seen in this context, genetically modified plants suffer many handicaps.

In your opinion, what could constitute a rational approach, especially from legal and regulatory points of view?

Well, let’s not be blissful and angelic about this; certain GMOs do raise issues. Just as is the case for any other innovative product, there are benefit-risk factors to be analysed. The problem in Europe today is that there is a systematic opposition. European legislation sets the framework for such analyses but Governments tend to go beyond this stage and dictate moratoriums to satisfy their populations. The benefit-risk studies are ignored.

I think the situation will evolve. Elsewhere in the world, GMOs are currently being developed. People travel and they can see for themselves that certain GMPs under given circumstances have shown their usefulness. The evolution may, however, take a long time.

To move out of the zone of confusion and the blockades, I think it is very important that we reason on a case-by-case, rigorous basis, including a benefit-risk analysis that takes the context into account. This is exactly what the main emerging countries are doing and you can readily observe that local considerations do have an influence on the conclusions of the debate. I mentioned earlier the anti-bollworm GMO produced by Monsanto: this was introduced in China without any particular level of reticence. In contradistinction, in India it gave rise to controversy because of questions surrounding costs and efficiency of the product. What is acceptable here is disputed there. It is for reasons such as these that the debate must take place, distinguishing clearly products and territories, i.e., reasoning in situ.

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