Genetically Modified Crops Defended by Scientists and Ethicists

Can Help Environment as Well as Fight Hunger, Says Italian Official

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ROME, DEC. 4, 2002 ( Are genetically modified organisms a threat to health and the ecosystem, or a solution to combat hunger in the world and to protect the environment?

Scientists and experts in bioethics addressed that question in a debate organized last week by the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of the Environment.

Given the question «GMO: Frankenstein’s food or defeat of hunger?,» Corrado Clini, director general of the Italian Ministry of the Environment, answered that the «new vegetable technologies represent a great opportunity for the protection of the environment and the growth of food resources.»

Biotechnologies are a key tool to combat the lack of food in many developing countries, Clini said. Moreover, «in the cultivation of transgenic maize, soybean and cotton the need for pesticides is drastically reduced, while productivity increases in marginal soils.»

In his address, Clini mentioned the prospect of the production of edible vaccines that could be used to combat widespread diseases in developing countries.

«Despite this,» he said, «there is widespread concern in Europe over the consumption of transgenic foods. In particular, among consumers the equation ‘GMO equals risk’ has been widely disseminated.»

Clini continued: «However, in 2001, research carried out by the European Commission, which involved over 400 public bodies for 15 years, came to the conclusion that there are no evident effects on health from biotech products, while negative effects can be found deriving from the use of pesticides and incorrect agricultural practices in traditional agriculture.»

Now, the European Union has a marginal role in research and experimentation of new vegetable biotechnologies. In 2001, the production of biotech plants in Europe represented 0.03% of the world production. The same year, 44 experimentations in the field were authorized in Europe, as compared to 256 in 1997.

The point at which biotechnological research has arrived was the focus of an address by Milan University professor Francesco Sala. «With the integration of one or a few genes,» Sala said, «resistance can be conferred to the principal parasites of cultivated plants, just as it is possible to offer resistance to drought, salinity and cold.»

It is also possible «to produce plants with high nutritive value — more vitamins, proteins, antioxidants — plants that synthesize vaccines against infectious diseases and tumors — cholera, hepatitis, AIDS, melanoma — new fuels and new plastics,» the professor added.

The applications are innumerable in the protection of the environment. It is possible to develop «plants that purify the soils of industrial contamination — lead, mercury and chrome, for example,» Sala added.

Nor can one forget «the considerable increase of productivity foreseen with the use of the new plants,» something that, according to Sala, will make it possible «to reduce the need to cut down forests in poor countries to produce more food and materials for human use. Rich countries will also be able to restore to nature — and, therefore, to biodiversity — part of the land currently devoted to agriculture.»

Given the opposition to biotechnology in Europe, Sala recalled the research carried out by the European Community on the safety of genetically modified plants.

«The official conclusion states: ‘The risks for man and for the environment derived from the use of these plants are not greater than those we have always accepted in traditional agricultural products. What is more, given that they are controlled, products derived from genetically modified plants often present fewer risks and greater benefits,'» Sala quoted.

For her part, Nathalie Louise Moll, responsible for Assobiotech’s institutional relations, referred to a demonstration by 1,000 African farmers who called for «freedom of choice» in this field, during the summit on development last August in Johannesburg.

The African farmers were claiming the dignity of being protagonists of their own future, she said.

«I spoke with one of these farmers, who told me: ‘I would like to come home in the afternoons and say to my wife: Look, this is the fruit of my work,'» Moll recalled. «African farmers want GMOs.»

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