Mr. Boselli, many countries have been producing and consuming Genetically Modified Organisms for 20 years now. How has the debate on their risks and advantages evolved?
At the beginning, GMOs were mostly confined to large-scale crop cultivation in wide open areas, involving mainly corn, cotton, soya and rapeseed. Bear in mind that today roughly 85 percent of the world’s soya is transgenic, and in Italy all our Denominated Origin products are produced by animals fed on transgenic soya. I’m a livestock farmer, and almost certainly every morning I feed my cows roughly 3 kilos of transgenic soya, but neither the quality of my milk nor that of the DOP products produced using it has diminished in the least.
In the first phase, GMOs were used for large-scale open field cultivation because at the beginning biotechnology required major investments, and not only for research into the modified organisms themselves but also because of the cost of registering them, which is an extremely long and expensive process… and actually this is one of the factors which limits the possibility of GMOs being modified by publically funded research. Looking beyond soya, today 80 percent of the world’s cotton is transgenic, and India – the world’s biggest cotton producer – now produces transgenic cotton almost exclusively. In the world today 180 million hectares are cultivated with GMO crops, but the farmers using GMOs are 18 million, which means that the average farm sise is ten hectares. Consequently, since most of the hectares in question are part of major enterprises covering over 1,000 hectares, there must be a huge number of farms covering just a few hectares.
Can GMOs really be useful to small-scale producers?
Certainly. GMOs can be extremely useful for small-scale producers, because the modified plants will be vital in the logic of the sustainable agriculture of the future. The sustainable agriculture of the future will have to deal with reduced use of water and fertilizer plus the need to feed an ever growing population. Today, GMOs use roughly 37 percent less pesticides than non-GMOs, while producing roughly 22 percent more per hectare: a rise in yield and a fall in chemicals. This represents a huge step forward in sustainability and in food security.
Let’s take another example: from 2002 to 2012 the United States used a fairly constant amount of pesticides per year, to the value of 10 billion dollars. In the same period, Europe, which has almost totally renounced the use of GMOs, went from spending 6 billion to 12 billion dollars, redoubling the amount of chemicals used. This demonstrates that GMOs – while not representing the only solution – are certainly a part of the pool of solutions to be applied in order to create an agricultural model which is sustainable from the economic, environmental and social viewpoints.
This is true of Italy too. For example in the Po Delta, where agriculture is increasingly under threat from the advance of the saline wedge, i.e. the penetration of salt water in the groundwater. Also, to return to our small-scale producer, it is interesting to remember that GMOs could save many threatened typical ‘Made in Italy’ varieties. Take the example of the San Marzano tomato, which has been attacked by three deadly viruses, to the point where it risks becoming extinct, and where currently the number of genuine San Marzano tomato plants has dropped to 3 percent. Here, as we all know, pesticides are practically useless against viruses. While, for example, a team of researchers from the Universities of Basilicata and Campania have selected a variety of San Marzano resistant to these viruses, using a gene from another tomato variety. In other words, by using biotechnology we could have our real San Marzano back and produce real Italian “pummarola” sauce, instead of being able to sow only 3 percent, trying to find virgin territory to sow it in, while buying San Marzano seedlings from Israel, where these viruses do not exist.
Any other examples?
Another dramatic example is that of Professor Sansavini in Bologna, who selected the gene which can make apples resistant to scab fungus, a serious apple disease which makes it impossible to sell the fruit, and which needs treatment roughly 10-12 times a year to be subdued. Professor Sansavini extracted a gene from a wild apple which provides normal apples with resistance to scab, creating a variety which would eliminate 10-12 pesticide treatments a year. Unfortunately, this is considered a GMO, and so remains within in the laboratory of Bologna University. And this is a timely reminder that biotechnology is not something monopolized by multinational companies, it is also ready and waiting for encouragement in Italian Universities and public research bodies.
What are the main trends in biotechnology research today?
We could say that there are basically two main areas of research: transgenic and cisgenic. A transgenic GMO is created by inserting in a plant a gene from a different species, vegetal or animal. In cisgenesis, the new gene inserted comes from the same species… for example you can introduce a gene from another tomato variety (but same species) into a San Marzano.
Cisgenic modification basically uses the same principle as natural selection, but speeds it up enormously and also eliminates the undesirable characteristics which can be ‘left behind’ in traditional gene selection. But I repeat, GMOs will not on their own provide a final solution for the future of agriculture, but they can be a vital component of the package of active measures which will contribute to the achievement of future sustainable agriculture, something that we in the Confagricoltura association wish to achieve.
Above all we want to remind people that Italian public research in biotechnology could save many varieties of traditional Italian products and help to revive many areas of depleted soil and abandoned territory. All this could be accomplished through cisgenic gene modification, which can be considered simply as a guided natural process that has nothing to do with the kind of “Frankenstein plant” of scaremongering folklore.
Cisgenesis would also contribute significantly to biodiversity, because it is becoming increasingly necessary to intervene to adapt plants to conditions of increased salinity, aridity or humidity. In order to adapt plants to these conditions, we have to search in nature for plants of the same species which are better equipped to deal with the problems they cause. A cisgenic GMO does not kill biodiversity, it feeds off and thus safeguards biodiversity. And the issue of patents is often confusingly presented. Today 99.9 percent of farmers in the Po Valley buy seeds from specialized multinational companies every year, so they still depend on giant companies. And patents expire after a while, and at that point anyone can produce that variety, if they have the technical means to do so.
Are there specific sectors of biotechnology in which Italy is particularly strong?
15 years ago, Italian University biotechnology research was extremely advanced… in the vanguard of scientific innovation. Then university activities in this sector were purged… suppressed. Three or four years ago, all the plants grown by the University della Tuscia in Viterbo were cut down. Today they are quarantined and locked away inside the laboratories because being classified as genetically modified organisms they cannot be used. Plants which in many cases would have offered health benefits because they contain specific nutrients… think of Golden Rice, for example [modified rice containing Vitamin A thanks to some papaya genes, Ed.], which could strongly benefit populations whose poverty leads to a diet lacking in certain vitamins. Or think of the purple tomato produced in England, rich in antioxidants and anti-tumor agents. Biotechnology has created many viable and valuable products, the problem is inadequate public knowledge, perpetuated by terror campaigns on this subject.
Could GMOs have negative repercussions on the environment?
It has been demonstrated that in order to avoid pollen from GMO corn fertilizing the flowers of non-GMO corn, all you need to do is sow the two kinds of corn in different moments, taking into account their different flowering periods. For example, Giorgio Fidenato, on his farm in Friuli has demonstrated that by diversifying sowing times this is avoided. In particular he seeded white corn surrounding a yellow corn and in practice, taking a few banal precautions, at a distance of five meters, no contamination whatsoever took place. And anyway, we must remember that in nature our DNA, just like the DNA of all living organisms, is modified every day by bacteria or other things we eat. And think of DDT… at a certain point nature selected flies which had developed a resistance to DDT, because nature regenerates itself anyway, and continues on its own paths.