GMOs in Question(s)
Gilles-Eric Seralini is a university lecturer and a researcher in molecular biology. He is also the author of a book entitled OGM, Le Vrai Débat (GM foods, the real debate). He was one of the first scientists to warn the public opinion against the dangers linked to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In this interview, he reminds us of a few basic facts about GMOs and tells us about the threat they represent.
What is your current research about ?
My research focuses on the intimate functioning of a cell, on the dialogue between organs and organisms, and on molecular dialogues. More specifically, I am studying molecular endocrinology and the relations between hormones/cancers and pesticides.
In 1997, along with a group of scientists, you asked for a moratorium to be set on the distribution of GMOs.
I was asked to be part of the government commissions which were evaluating GMOs at the French Ministry of Environment and Agriculture. I knew the side effects of pesticides on health and I also knew the mode of creation of transgenic plants that produce or absorb pesticides. From the beginning, I became suspicious of the controls that had been done. And I unveiled the scandal : a consortium of lobbies had taken control of the situation, They were putting a brake on research on the side effects of pesticides on health. Those corporations want to distribute technological products rapidly and without any control, they want to patent the base of the food trade. This moratorium enabled us to make it clear to agricultural associations, agricultural trade unions, consumer associations, as well as to various ecological and environment friendly groups that there was a public health problem. Then we also very quickly warned ministries.
We need a global reflection and action. Is that what you are doing with the Independent Committee of Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRII-GEN) ?
The CRII-GEN is a Committee of associative and independent expertise ; it is mostly based on volunteering for it works only thanks to subscriptions. We provide our subscribers with new elements so that they can decide whether they want to accept or to refuse certain ideas conveyed by the GMO file. We have also managed to talk to several firms producing GMOs. We explained to them the risks implied by the distribution of transgenic plants on the environment and health. They can no longer say that they don’t know. It is legally very important, in case there are deaths due to the consumption of transgenic soy or corn in the future.
Deaths due to GM Foods ?
It is the same problem as mad cow disease. For the cows that had been fed with meat-and-bone meal, there was a possibility that they would die and it turned out to be true. Genetically modified foods are mainly plants created to produce or absorb pesticides. The side effects of pesticides on health can be discovered after months or years. They will be multifactorial and complex, and they won’t have the same action as a virus that kills within a few days. It took us years to acknowledge that smoking causes cancer, and daily smoking is easy to trace. If GMOs are disseminated without labeling il will take dozens of years.
How can you trace GM Foods ?
The main result of our fight is that now GM Foods are being traced more and more in Europe. From a worldwide viewpoint, people are beginning to label, and Europe’s labelling and tracing system is used as an example. The United States doesn’t label GM Foods and is more and more isolated. Even Canada wants to start to label. We were the first ones to ask to trace GM Foods in 1997. People thought it was irrational because the US exported GM and non-GM products. Everything was mixed. Today everybody knows that we need to trace GM Foods, but we still need to improve animal testing. I’m not talking about refuting a science. it just has to be used to the benefit of mankind.
Could you give us a few key facts and figures about GM Foods ?
99% of the GM Foods distributed in the world are plants which produce or tolerate pesticides. Four plants represent 98% of GM Foods (soy, corn, cotton and colza). 97% of those plants are grown on the American continent (US, Argentina and Canada). The research focuses on plants that produce their own insecticide and on those that are tolerant to herbicides. Those plants are only adapted to the industrial and western countries, they don’t resist drought or frost. They are not adapted to the climate in poor countries and anyway, there is no market in those countries. The sowing of GM Foods is expensive and those plants are patented. They just make the farmer’s life easier, for intensive practices giving him less work. But the European Commission’s General Bureau for Agriculture believes that in the end the production is no better. What is more some of those plants grow back again even with herbicides, so in the long run farmers will have to use more and more of those products. They will probably become more and more dependent on the market of the pesticides. Now we can see huge companies organise and buy farms and smallholdings. Not only are the pesticides very expensive, but they also poison the farmers who use them. One farmer in six is the victim of pesticide problem. This is how we use science to serve the main agricultural industry, which produces and uses pesticides.We fight to free the world from those intensive methods, which eventually exploit mankind and earth. We fight to foster alternative methods using integrated systems including biological fighting, ecological culture, diversified methods which many times turned out to be very efficient, like the traditional Chinese agriculture which is able to feed close populations and reduce the use of pesticides.
What about the research on transgenic animals ?
For the time being it still isn’t widely used, since it is much more difficult to implement than with plants. It is used either for agricultural or textile production, or for pharmaceutical production. It is limited yet, but many things are getting prepared... A few animals have been accepted for distribution, like a transgenic salmon in Canada. There again, animals are genetically doped. The hormones that used to be injected in the cattle and poultry so that they would grow fat are now produced thanks to artificial genes. Southern populations are missing medicines because they are patented, imagine if food now becomes patented ! It is a very efficient way to starve populations in the long run. It is also very scary as far as humanity’s future is concerned.
In your book OGM, Le Vrai Débat, a chapter is entitled "Army and Biological War". What can you tell us on this issue ?
GMOs can be used to make war, and there are two methods- the soft one and the tough one. The soft methods are those advocated by certain countries. They enable the control over the agriculture of a country. Either you sterilise pollination insects that sterilise plants, or you disseminate devastating insects on the crops.
Like the Diabrotica Virgifera ?
Yes, the Diabrotica Virgifera is a very dangerous and devastating insect, forbidden in laboratories, and which has been widespread on European soil since the American army arrived during the war in Yugoslavia. It has now reached the Italian border. It might be a coincidence, yet we have evidence that this insect has first been introduced in Sarajevo. And Monsanto has been testing transgenic corn resistant to this insect in Europe, although it did not exist on this continent before the mid-nineties...
The "black programs" of a few laboratories seem very worrisome...
A lot of insects carry diseases like malaria or yellow fever. Like the mosquitoes. It is possible to create stem cells that will carry more diseases than others and develop the dissemination of mosquitoes’ eggs. With that we have a fearful war weapon. During the Gulf war, new and peculiar diseases developed. Scientists now know how to identify the immunological or skin specificities of individuals at a molecular level. And we can possibly imagine - as we imagine that certain vaccines are specific to a certain kind of population - biological weapons that would only attack a certain kind of population. That is what we call the reversed gene therapy laboratories are trying to transform insignificant bacteria into highly dangerous weapons. I’m thinking about Anthrax, of a kind of flu virus that would carry the genes of AIDS... Many laboratories can now do it and those are the tough methods. Today, genetic manipulations and biological war are far less expensive, more diversified and more powerful than the nuclear weapon.In France, the Genetic Genius Commission, which is working on the authorisation of experiments in laboratories, should better control the authorisations it delivers. The aim of the experiments should be precisely registered.
I would like to quote this apostrophe of Nietzsche : "I am teaching you superhuman. Mankind exists only to be overstepped. What did you do to overstep it ? "
I’ve had an in-depth reflection and questioned myself about my own future life and my professional project. I think man can only overstep himself through his projects. Let’s acknowledge that for the time being we have a very poor knowledge of human genetics. We haven’t even finished the sequencing of the human genome, and even when that work will be completed, we probably still won’t understand how it exactly works. To overstep ourselves, we need more fundamental research with the principle of precaution as a driving force. It will stimulate research through a system of surveillance that enables us to know what we are doing at the time we are doing it. We need to conduct complete tests on genetically modified foods before we get involved in any large-scale distribution.
So before the superhuman, there will be a superape ?
It’s already here...
|Gilles-Eric Seralini, OGM, le vrai débat, coll. Dominos, Flammarion|