When recombinant DNA technology started early in the ’70s, it was the unknown in front of all us. And the unknown always scares people. The majority worried about experiments performed with viruses as vectors to modify the genome of humans. There was an expectation then that one day we could do what is now called gene therapy. The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA was organized in San Diego to deal with concerns, and immediately a moratorium was established for over a year, until the NIH delivered rules for using this new technology.
I followed all this closely, since I was a PhD student at UC-Davis, and brought to Brazil the NIH rules, as most other countries did. Europeans, to a certain extent, took advantage of this historical moment. Marc Montagu and Jeff Schell built the scientific basis for genetic engineering in plants. Genetically modified plants took longer, however, to develop.
First success came through Luiz Herrera Estrella, who produced in 1982 a tobacco genetically modified to grow in the presence of an antibiotic. In this decade, there were a few examples of plants genetically modified: tobacco resistant to insects using Bt (a toxin found in Bacillus thuringiensis). So one can say that plant genetic engineering is in fact less than 30 years old.
The first commercial release of a RR soybean came in 1992. So, commercially it will be 20 years next year. During this 20 years, the technology grew and was adopted worldwide by 13 million farmers, big and small. In 2011, more than 150 million Ha of genetically modified plants will be cultivated. Yet this is only about 10% of the total arable land on the planet. If we add all the area cultivated with GM plants since the early ’90s, it would be today more than 1 billion Ha.
During these 20 years, not one accident has occurred due to the use of plants genetically modified. Not one relevant environmental impact, not one relevant impact to the health of humans or animals. Viruses as a vector for gene therapy claimed the life of one patient in Pennsylvania. All together, genetic engineering compared to other technologies has proved safe precisely because there was competent control of the technology, from the very beginning. So why do some continuously fight against GM plants, as seen in Brazil and Europe mostly? The reasons are political.
GM plants are being led by large corporations like Monsanto. Those who fear that these large corporations will control the agriculture worldwide react against GM plants because they see these products as an instrument of large corporations. In addition, agriculture in Europe cannot compete with our agriculture in Brazil or in Argentina, a situation made worse by Brazil and Argentina ranking second and third for GM plants, behind the US.
But one cannot conceive of agricultural growth without GM plants. It’s the only strategic way to deal with climatic changes already in progress. I’ve said previously that most GM plants cultivated in the world are confined to few species: soybean, corn, cotton and canola. Little or nothing for the staple crops such as cassava, (cassava rich in protein is already developed), sweet potato sorghum or pearl millet. So what is there for the Sub Sahara countries ? A lot, yet not built, except for the Golden rice of Potrikus.
People do not see this technology as a way to reduce poverty or hunger. The perception most people have about genetically engineered plants is that they do more bad than good. To change this perception, we have to demonstrate that the technology can also solve important social problems. In Brazil, we’re expressing in goat milk Lysozime and Lactoferrin, to reduce diarrhea that causes deaths in the Semi-Arid area of Brazil and in some Countries in the Sub Sahara. We are doing this in partnership with Elizabeth Maga and James Murray from UC-Davis, teaming up with Marcelo and Luciana Bertolini from UNIFOR – a private University in Fortaleza, the capital of the State of Ceará in Northeast Brazil.
Francisco Aragão at the CENARGEN in EMBRAPA engineered beans ( Phaseolus vulgaris ) resistant to golden mosaic using RNA interference. Controlling this virus is otherwise impossible for small farmers, yet NGOs were against it in Brazil. Beans are a staple crop, not a commodity, and provide food for the small farmer. This GM bean was not developed by “multinationals.” EMBRAPA is a Brazilian institution. Yet still, NGOs were against it. This is how far we are from the correct perception of GM plants. Plenty of people defend the sole use of “organicos.” Unfortunately, that will never feed the world’s 7 billion people.