Life is a complex system. The matter is created, decomposed, its components are exchanged, reorganized, the matter is destroyed and recreated again. For 3.5 billion years, life has developed into a robust system based on the deep interconnection of its elements. Today that complex system is collapsing, and the main responsible is only one of its macro-components: the human being.
Faced with the growing degradation of terrestrial ecosystems due to the voracity of their way of life, the human species suddenly finds itself torn between two alternatives for its future: either it changes its production logic to connect with its environment and reverse the damage, or it continues to move in the same direction compensating for its destruction through the creation of a synthetic environment in a laboratory.
With this dilemma began the doctor in Molecular Biology and Cellular Claudio Martinez Debat his conference called "Uruguay Natural and Transgenic", given last August 15 at the Museum of Natural History Dr. Carlos A. Torres de la Llosa.
"We are at the crossroads and there is not much time," said the researcher, who is a professor at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of the Republic and director of the Food Molecular Traceability Laboratory (LaTraMa).
Before getting fully involved in the topic that was the title of his lecture, Martínez was concerned about bringing his audience closer to the immense complexity that characterizes what we call "ecosystem", of which we still do not understand more than a miserable fraction. Within the historic tree of life all branches are connected, and to illustrate this Martínez informed the audience that each person shares 10% of their DNA with that of lettuce.
But this holistic connection is not just about DNA sequences. From our ancestors, we not only inherit a linear sequence of genetic code, but also the mechanisms that regulate the expression of this code. These mechanisms are encompassed within what is known as "epigenetics", and these depend primarily on the environment.
A DNA sequence may be present in an organism but cannot be expressed with observable effects. The mechanisms of epigenetic regulation are closely linked to the context in which an individual lives, to the stress to which he is exposed, and therefore they are usually related to the moods of a person or the performance of a plant in its growth.
In these processes, it is fundamental the cooperative interaction with organisms that are usually considered enemies of the human being: microbes, such as fungi and bacteria. Part of these microbes we inherit from our parents, the other comes from the food we eat and the air we breathe. The microbiome is therefore fundamental to our good health, and this depends largely on our relationship with the environment.
With this introduction, Claudio Martinez sought to outline to what extent our existence is intimately connected with the environment, and how the slightest alteration of it can bring harmful consequences for our species.
In a society in which science and technology are advancing by leaps and bounds, biotechnologies and technologies are under development (Martínez highlighted the upcoming 5G mobile network technology) that will affect our lives considerably and whose impact on health is little studied, "since it is difficult to find doctors who are interested in these issues".
"Everything has a certain role, biomass is finite, and the idea that we can alter the system infinitely is a mistake that will lead us to a dead-end," the researcher said seriously.
One of these technologies threads finely into the extensive and dense fabric of life: transgenesis. This technique consists of manipulating the genetic material of an organism to obtain from its characteristics that could not be obtained utilizing conventional crossings.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is, therefore, an organism that presents in its genome DNA from another species with which it cannot reproduce sexually.
Today there are more than 180 million hectares of transgenic crops distributed in 28 countries of the world, five of which concentrate 90% of this area. Latin America is the second-largest producer of transgenic crops after North America, and until 2013 Uruguay was in tenth place among the world's largest producers of transgenic crops with 1.5 million hectares cultivated since today belongs to Bolivia.
The largest fraction of this planted area corresponds to soybean, corn, cotton, and canola crops (soybean and corn in our country), and the genes incorporated into these plants seek predominantly to give them, on the one hand, the ability to synthesize bacterial toxins with insecticidal effects, especially to protect crops of lepidopteran larvae (butterflies and moths), and on the other hand the ability to resist the application of herbicides such as glyphosate. Herbicide resistance is sought in 85% of transgenic crops.
Favored big ones
The main positive views on the production of transgenic crops are centered on economic growth and the dynamization of the agricultural sector, attracting foreign investment, promoting technological innovations, and generating new jobs.
However, this agrarian social restructuring favors large enterprises over the smallest and family ones, and these optimistic views avoid resting on the possible risks to health and the environment in the medium and long term. It should be noted that GM production is concentrated in the hands of large multinational companies, the same companies that carry out most of the safety and innocuousness studies and request the commercial release of GMOs.
According to Claudio Martínez, the arguments in favor of the safety of transgenic foods are usually based on the precision of genetic engineering techniques, on the one hand, and the similarities between the protein compositions of the modified organisms and their non-modified counterparts (i.e. the natural ones), on the other.
Although the new methods of transmission of genetic constructs such as the CRISPR/Cas9 technology are more specific, they are still imprecise, since it is not possible to determine with certainty in which sites the transgenic will be inserted into the receptor DNA.
The insertion of the gene to be transferred to an organism is random and completely subject to probabilities, so as much as we know that our gene was inserted into the desired site of the genome, it is impossible to know in which other sites it was incorporated.
Locating the transgene in unexpected places can thus produce unsuspected effects on the gene expression of the modified organism. It is these same events of unexpected insertion that are not taken into account by studies looking for similarities between GMOs and natural organisms.
The director of LaTraMa thus underlined that we are faced with dubious veracity when it is stated that genetically modified foods are identical to unmodified foods, starting from the point that subjecting plants to genetic engineering is equivalent to subjecting them to stressful conditions. This in itself modifies their epigenetics, and hence the expression of their genes and their composition in proteins.
Another argument in favor of GMOs that Martinez put under the microscope is that referring to the potential that GM food has to combat the hunger of human populations in the world, a potential that remains silent because 75% of the food of these populations come from small producers and that most of the GM soy produced today "feeds the pigs of China and the cows of Europe.
According to a scientist, the quantity of food produced is sufficient to feed the world population and the real problem would be in the distribution of these foods and in the market logic that sustains them. In this scenario, Latin America has become in recent years a great supply platform in raw materials for global markets.
Against this backdrop, Claudio Martínez said that the scientific community has become "a battlefield". But Martínez did not use the association with the war only to refer to academic struggles, but he also remarked how all the relations that human beings have with nature are crossed by a warlike semantic field.
According to scientists, humanity has always declared war on everything that hinders or slows down its economic activities and ambitions. There is no war in nature," Martínez said, "competition yes, but no war. If we are at war with nature, we directly lose sight of its secrets and declare war on our food.
This warlike attitude of human beings towards their environment is evident in the main agricultural advantage of transgenic crops over traditional crops: their resistance to the use of herbicides. The increase in the use of transgenics was accompanied by an exponential increase in the application of agrotoxins.
Between 2000 and 2014 the use of glyphosate in our country increased tenfold and even more so was the increase in the use of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a herbicide better known as 2,4 D, which is much more harmful to health than the former. The massive loads of agrochemicals applied to crops not only remain in the soil but also remain in the grains and food that reach the market. "They have become undeclared condiments," Martínez said ironically.
For the researcher, transgenic crops are one more technology within the agribusiness production model, a model that does not consider the risks of indiscriminately exploiting and altering the natural resources that, based on this production logic, are considered infinite.
The indiscriminate use of herbicides wears down soils and favors the growth of cyanobacteria (which produce microcystins toxic to humans) against the growth of other benign bacteria. Herbicides such as glyphosate are rich in phosphorus, a mineral that enriches the growth medium of cyanobacteria and is used by them for photosynthesis.
At the crossroads
Although there are currently no agricultural techniques that do not harm terrestrial ecosystems, Claudio Martínez Debat remained positive about the existence of alternatives. The researcher is at the head of the Interdisciplinary Center TÁ Collective (Transgenics and Agroecology) together with the agronomist Maria Inés Gazzano Santos, a collective that seeks to evaluate the impact on food of the current production model and the use of transgenics and agrochemicals.
Agroecology is a recent science that seeks to associate the postulates of ecology to the design of new modes of agricultural production that are sustainable over time. Martínez considers that this look towards a sustainable future is essential if we want to conserve nature as we know it and continue to evolve organically and not in an artificial transhumanist way. We are at the crossroads of two roads. All that remains is to decide which path we prefer to follow.
This is a translation of the article written by Bruno Gariazzo with the source link here: La Republica