By Antonio Turrent Fernández *
The director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, declared on March 15 at the final press conference of the Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, that transgenics are as a thing of the past: they are obsolete ... the new biotechnologies already have another approach, with an environmental concern. Graziano was referring to some of the conclusions of an international seminar recently held in Rome, FAO headquarters.
The improvement of plants by genetic engineering will have to conclude the chapter of the invasive insertion of foreign DNA to the plant genome or transgenesis to give way to new techniques, such as the editing of the plant's own genes. This technique derives from the understanding of the mechanism by which bacteria defend themselves against viruses.
R. Wilkinson and B. Wiedenheft. 2014. A CRISPR method for genome engineering, F1000PrimeReports, 2014, 6: 3 (doi: 10.12703 / P6-3).
The new chapter of genetic engineering dispenses with the insertion of foreign genetic additives to the plant, as conspicuous as the structural gene, the promoter, the identifier and the sequences that indicate the beginning and end of the transgenic construction. By eliminating this transgenesis, the imprecision of insertion into the genome, which is typical of outdated technology, is eliminated. The new gene editing technique creates a new allele (one more, of the gene variants) and, as such, remains subordinate to the plant's growth and development plan, which turns it off or on.
The new technique eliminates major limitations of current biotechnology, but not all. The development of super pests (insects and weeds) will still continue to be instigated. When it is possible to edit the genome of corn to confer resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, this agrochemical will have to continue to be applied to the crop in increasing doses, carrying its well-documented deleterious effect on human health and ecology. Like the obsolescent biotechnology, the new one uses tissue culture, known to generate mutations, thereby retaining the corresponding risks of obsolescent biotechnology. It also retains the unknown effects and possible risks derived from the interactions of the edited gene with other genes near or far in the genomic space (known as pleiotropy). It also retains the inability to manipulate the hundreds and even thousands of quantitative genes that control traits such as potential yield and genetic tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought, and extreme temperatures.
The new biotechnology makes current commercial genetic engineering, which dates back to the 1980s, obsolete. This is why they need to keep selling their outdated technology. Such is the case of the permits requested from the Mexican government for the commercial planting of transgenic corn in 2012, which have not been granted. All of these genetic materials belong to the outdated generation of genetic engineering.
The court order to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (Sagarpa) and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) to suspend the granting of permits to plant transgenic corn in the open air, in September 2013 (Miguel Concha, La Jornada, 3/22/14) was a great success for the Nation. It saved and has so far saved native Mexican corn and its wild relatives from being massively and irreversibly contaminated with transgenic DNA. It is in the interest of the Nation that this court order remains that way, until multinational consortia demonstrate that they have modernized their obsolete biotechnology and that they also demonstrate, before independent scientists, without conflict of interest, that they have reduced their risk to acceptable levels for the population and for the biodiversity of native maize and its wild relatives.
The new technique for editing genes is the product of basic and applied-strategic research that has aroused great interest in diverse groups of researchers at universities and research institutes in Europe, the United States and Brazil, at least. It is being used extensively in genomic research, human medicine, laboratory animals, and plants. The monopolization of this technique for patenting by multinational consortia will present them with a greater degree of difficulty and cost than obsolete biotechnology.
* Emeritus national researcher of the National System of Researchers. Member of the Union of Scientists Committed to the AC Society. Email: [email protected]
Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean