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Antonio Boselli. Cisgenesis can help small farmers and typical products

Innovation / -

imm rif Antonio Boselli Confagricoltura
Andrea Mariani

Antonio Boselli is the President of the farmers’ association Confagricoltura in Milan, Lodi, and Monza-Brianza, and an expert in biotechnology applied to agriculture. A speaker at a conference focused on GMOs, held by the CNR (National Research Council) in Expo Milano 2015, he was interviewed by ExpoNet, the official magazine of the Universal Exposition.

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.
 

Wonderful China. A boundless and modern country, without sacrificing its ancient history

Culture / -

china national day cover
Keren Su, Corbis

To fall in love with this country it’s enough to watch a panda at play, but to fully understand it; don’t just stop with the expected. Certainly China is rice, bamboo, and philosophy, but it is also much more. As a mandala made up of many different colors, this country has been enriched by numerous shades and unusual contrasts. Expo Milano 2015 celebrates the National Day of China today.

Ten, a hundred, a thousand countries in one. This is China. In recent decades the giant of the East has evolved from its ancient history to develop a strong and powerful economy able to compete with the more established Western powers. The progress made in these last few years is evident in the futuristic skylines of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The progress combines with an ancient wisdom, made of traditions, spirituality and conservation of nature. Traditional China includes the imposing sacred mountain Emei, a destination for the faithful from all over the country, the Kung Fu School of the Shaolin Masters in Henan province, the Buddhist temples found throughout  the country and the many nature reserves in Sichuan for the pandas,  all give travelers only a vague idea of ​​the vastness of stimuli that the country offers.
 
A world of flavors, from the delicacy of tofu to the intensity of chili
China is immeasurably vast and so is its cuisine which varies from region to region. When it comes to the menu, however, some items can be found in every corner of the country, even in the less touristy areas, and we are not talking about spring rolls or chicken with almonds, as typically offered in Chinese restaurants abroad. The ubiquitous foods at home are chilli, bamboo, tofu, white rice and pork. The Chinese have a very ancient culinary tradition and give food, like many other populations, important cultural value. Other famous dishes are the roast duck in Beijing, the famous shellfish of Shanghai, the hot pot of Cengdu (for strong stomachs), and many other delicacies that fill up the street stalls, such as the mountains of dim sum and skewers of spicy fish.
 
Thousands of orange carnations welcome visitors in front of the Chinese Pavilion
China participates in the Universal Exhibition in Milan with an impressive pavilion of more than 4,500 square meters located on the Decumano.  In the first twenty days   of Expo Milano 2015 the Chinese pavilion was visited by 250,000 people. The very impressive structure overlooks the axis of the Expo site and is connected by a walkway, surrounded by thousands of marigolds, a small and very fragrant orange flower also nicknamed the "Chinese carnation". The route inside the pavilion shows the production of local foods, such as rice, mulberry and tofu, and also China’s world famous silk and tea. Inside Technical advances made by the country in the context of recycling, traceability, grain hybridization and the so-called “Internet of things” used in production and logistics processes related to food are also featured.
 

Shenggen Fan. In the fight against malnutrition, we must not forget the middle-income countries

Economy / -

Shenggen Fan, Direttore Generale dell'International Food Policy Resarch Institute

In March, the Director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, will present the latest Global Food Policy Report, which focuses on countries such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Vietnam, that have yet to make significant progress towards more equitable access to food.

In 2014, the World Food Programme recognized his activities in guiding the International Food Policy Research Institute, by awarding him with the Hunger Hero Award. We are of course referring to Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI since 2009, the Washington-based institute that each year presents two publications that are international reference points in the fight against hunger and malnutrition: the Global Hunger Index and the Global Food Policy Report. In September, at Expo Milano 2015, Fan will present the second Global Nutrition Report.

What are the main changes in the approach to hunger and malnutrition over the last ten years?
Over the last 10 years, at a global level, we have made much progress in reducing hunger and malnutrition. In 2000, the global leaders came together and committed to reducing hunger by half and today we are on track with the so-called Millennium Goals, and we expect to reduce hunger by half by 2015. We’ve made tremendous progress, even if the number of people suffering from hunger remains very high, with around 800 million people who are suffering from hunger and under-nutrition. Right now, more than two million people are suffering from lack of micro-nutrients, due to a poor diet and poor quality of food. Another issue of course is over-nutrition, so obesity and overweight, and again more than 2 billion people are suffering from this.
 
In the fight against malnutrition, is it possible to educate people and spread good eating habits without replicating the food diseases of the rich countries, such as overweight and over-nutrition?
Yes, I do think we can, but we need education, knowledge, and information, to help people understand why good nutrition is so important. Another important element are the policies. So far policies have helped to produce food that is unhealthy and unsustainable. For example in many countries food production is subsidized, like the water, the electricity, the fertilizer. All these subsidies help with the production of staple foods, but at the expense of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. They have also helped to degrade the land, and caused water pollution, air pollution. These are the challenges regarding food safety.
 
In your experience, which aspects of food security are better dealt with locally, and which ones need a global resolution?
At a global level, things such as free trade and transparent trade can help move the food. Global research can help with a nutritious food production, sharing technologies, and sharing information, which is also critical. At a local level, so at a community level, working together to share the information, share the knowledge, this is important. The local people can also be organized to protect their interests and that of the local environment. They can then educate the local people on the value of nutrition. So, solutions at both a local and a global level are needed.
 
During the early part of your research actives, you worked in your home country of China. Which are the main agricultural challenges for this country?
When I grew up in China, many years ago, there was a lot of poverty, with many people going hungry.  However, as a country it has made a lot of progress. There has been an increase in food production, with less hunger, and less poverty. However, the country still faces some challenges, especially regarding equality. Some people still do not have enough to eat, some people still don’t have the right quality of food to eat, and others have too much to eat, suffering from obesity and overweight, so many challenges.
 
So what kinds of policies do they need to fix these problems, you may ask. The country still needs to produce more food, but also more quality food, nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and not just rice, wheat, and corn. They also need to use less natural resources, such as water, land, energy, and reduce their carbon emissions. Basically, they need to produce more with less. China can also help other countries in South Asia as well as Africa to improve their food security. These countries can then export their foods to the global markets, so China can buy foods from them.

Can you give us some indications on what we can expect in the 2014 Global Food Policy Report?
Our next Global Food Policy Report will be released in March and this will highlight some of the key challenges that the “middle-income” countries are facing, such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Vietnam. So while we need to focus on Africa and other very poor countries, we must not forget the middle-income countries who also suffer from malnutrition, lack of micro-nutrients and conversely problems with obesity and overweight. These countries need a different strategy in solving food security and malnutrition problems. This is one of the highlights in the 2014 Global Food Policy Report.
 
Among the other cultural practices that you have studied or observed over the years, which one impressed you most?
One of the lessons we have learned is that we must support small-holders. As they only have a limited amount of land to cultivate, they should be encouraged to either move up, and start producing higher-value crops, or increase the size of the land, which will allow them to increase their income. Otherwise, they should move out to urban areas, away from the agricultural sector. This way they can pursue other actives and be able to earn a living, and very importantly, be able to feed and educate the next generation.
 
You will be presenting the Global Nutrition Report at Expo Milano 2015. What message would you like to bring to the Expo?
For people, especially Europeans, to keep an open mind in terms of modern technologies, in terms of trade, in terms of bio-fuels. Controversial issues should be based on evidence. Then we should be able to feed the world, and without destroying the planet.
 

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