Food biotechnology: the art of moulding life to suit contingent economic requirements

Adria Granelli
Doctor in food science and technology, member of AVI Scientific Committee
1) Some thoughts about food.
Is eating perhaps a simple, ordinary daily act?
For 50 years now a third of mankind has had plenty of food: you have only to go into any supermarket to find all kinds of food, but the remaining two thirds of the world's population are not so fortunate. The situation used to be different: in the 19th century man still had to devote 70% of his energies to getting food. It is wrong to think that eating is an ordinary act - those who have made a definite choice like the vegetarian one realise this. Eating defines us more than anything else, defines us as human beings, belonging to a certain era, a certain social culture. Above all it defines us as unique and unrepeatable beings.
2) Connection between food and energy: who is not familiar with the infamous kilocalories from our food?
Kilocalories measure the amount of heat, in numerical terms, generated by foods. This has led us to believe for example that the same quantity of fat always produces the same quantity of kilocalories and therefore energy, but this is not true. Hydrogenated fat doesn't have the same calorific value as an oil, because it is saturated and so cannot be metabolised by the body so that it is stored by the body as ballast for the other fats. So food is not an undifferentiated source of energy, as many multinational businessmen believe: it does not merely serve to fill our stomachs, it is not just a kind of ballast whose task is over when our tastebuds are gratified. Food must be a vital source of energy and not take energy away from us. We cannot dedicate our body's energy to trying to eliminate the negative effects of the food we have eaten.
3) Connection between food and environment
There is a close connection between food and environment: a vegetable is an expression, a microconcentration of the environment which has produced it. A food is healthy and beneficial if the environment it has come from is. By the environment I do not just mean nature, I mean various factors: those closely related to nature (average temperatures of the areas where the food is grown, exposure to the sun's rays, altitude, pressure, rainfall, wind, characteristics and availability of water), and those depending on human intervention (human work, equipment, types of herbicide and insecticide, industrial development, industrial use of scientific discoveries, biotechnologies).
Man has always adapted nature to his domus (home), according to contingent requirements relating to the era and society he lived in. Nature and environment were certainly different in Ancient Egypt or in nineteenth century Germany, since social conditions, the conditions in which people lived, were different at those times. Biotechnology has always been part of human history, so that nowadays we should distinguish between two types of biotechnology: traditional and advanced.
Traditional biotechnology has been perfected over the course of time. The production of fermented foods such as cheese, wine, beer or yoghurt have their origins in ancient history, along with biomasses to create antibiotics, spices or enzymes; whereas the most recent scientific discoveries and their use by industry are known as advanced biotechnology, which can be subdivided into the cellular and the molecular. The former involve the possibility of in vitro modification of cells of animal or vegetable origin; whereas the latter involves the manipulation of the genetic code, the DNA, which is easy to do because it consists of four bases or nucleotides held together by a chemical bond which is the same for any life form on planet earth. It is like using a four-letter alphabet to write an infinite number of books: it's easy to tear a page out of one book and put it into another one, but this changes the text's meaning. The sectors biotechnology operates within are agrifood (seeds, fruit and vegetables, micro-organisms to create biomasses, zootechnics), pharmaceutics and the military sector.
Economic development
In the early 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation began to subsidise studies aimed at modifying the genetic code. In the 50s the industrial use of molecular biotechnology began with the production of hybrid - high yield - seeds. These seeds in the 60s gave rise to what was called "The Green Revolution", leading to devastating consequences over areas where they were tried out such as India: production increased, but millions of people were hit by famine. In the 70s and 80s many multinational companies saw big economic opportunities and went into the agrifood sector, which brought about the following profound changes in the farming system:
1) the arrival of multinational companies from the chemical, electrochemical, pharmaceutical and oil sectors distorted the farming economy;
2) what to produce and how to produce it became linked to economic strategies and company profits;
3) agricultural production became denaturalised, becoming more and more dependent on up and downstream processes such as seed production and the transformation processes of agricultural substances, again by multinational companies;
4) just one company now owns more than 800 seed industries, and just two companies in Holland control 90% of seed production;
5) last, but not least, farming has changed from extensive to intensive.
Advantages and disadvantages
When we talk about the advantages of biotechnology, we are talking about the yield per hectare of land. Monsanto soya can produce seven times the yield of normal soya. We should remember though that intensification means greater exploitation of each hectare of land, and increased production requires increased use of herbicides and insecticides. This is dictated by the first law of thermodynamics: if we want to produce more we have to add products and energy. Usually, after seeding, herbicide was added, after which another chemical would be spread on the land to protect the corn from herbicide. With intensive farming and genetically modified seeds' greater resistance to weeds, use of pesticides and insecticides can be reduced, together with production costs per hectare. These are partial rather than overall advantages, however, since the multinationals have taken no account of environmental damage.
Let's look now at some disadvantages of biotechnology:
1) patents: seeds have a name and ownership certificate;
2) increased genetic uniformity;
3) risks arising from genetic manipulation;
4) the distorted use of new technologies.
The financial newspapers see patents as a plus point. Turnover for the next 10 years is expected to reach 65 billion dollars. The risks are: the imposition of conditions for the use of patented resources, restraints on the use of the invention, the price and set-off. For example, last year Monsanto imposed stranglehold conditions on farmers for the use of the "round up ready" soya bean. And this was how they behaved towards the farmers of the North, so you can imagine how they might treat the weaker farmers of the South! Monsanto imposed their own inspectors on farmers even to check amounts of herbicides, and did not allow farmers to keep registers to check on their income and expenditure - a real monopoly.
Another point to consider is the accumulation of patents. When a company discovers a new gene of commercial interest, such a gene can be combined in various ways and every combination patented, so that one gene can be patented hundreds of times.
A further risk is that of genetic monopoly: the right to prevent others using a patented gene. The most serious repurcussions are those for the medical sector, for the production of hormones and remedies.
There is also monopoly of characteristics, preventing other companies carrying out research which would produce the same result as a discovery already made.
Another disadvantage is increasing genetic uniformity. 10,000 years ago on planet earth, 5 million inhabitants were fed by 5,000 different plants, whereas 1997 figures are approximately 6 billion people being fed by 120 types of plants. According to a 1996 FAO report, man has succeeded in identifying 250,000 types of plants, 30,000 of which are considered, and only 7,000 are used as food. Today 120 of these are being grown, while only 9 of them are feeding 75% of world population, and only 3 are feeding 50% of us. This genetic erosion has led to the disappearance of many varieties. Coffee production, for example, is based on just one type of plant, which means it could easily be wiped out if it came under attack. A plant studied in a US laboratory will certainly produce a lower yield in India, since local varieties are more resistant to an Indian kind of environment. Insects, viruses, fungi and animals also change in response to environment. All this means that such plants are more environmentally vulnerable. Malaria for example is now making a comeback, although previously it seemed to have been eradicated by chemical methods. In order to check whether genetic modification has been successful, an antibiotic resistance gene is put into the plant in addition to the commercial gene. There is no evidence yet that the antibiotic resistance gene is damaging, but in my opinion we should proceed with great caution. To return to the misuse of new technologies: the seed-pesticide symbiosis of the "round up ready" soya bean bean and its herbicide are the best known cases in the food industry of the use of scientific research and studies. Consumers demanded the lawmakers give them information and protection. The EC responded in 1990 with a directive (90/220), and the EU in 1997 with a regulation (97/258). The lawmakers in this way pursued the twin aims of public safety and correct consumer information. Although lawmakers are well-intentioned - the twin aims are excellent - the means available for them to pursue these objectives are inadequate. Public safety is protected only if bureaucratic procedures are carried out, whilst, as far as correct information is concerned, a product similar to a natural one but containing genetically modified elements does not have to be labelled as such. Although this complies with the principle of equivalence, it certainly does not guarantee safety.
By choosing the vegetarian way, vegetarians promote the moral choice of a life which is nonviolent towards the environment and the animals sharing land, air and water with us. The vegetarian movement must now concern itself with biotechnologies and speak out on this subject, so that we can create a social environment, a social "humus" in which virtue and fair distribution can flourish for the good of the whole of humanity, both now and in the future. It would be very useful if this congress could produce a series of studies to inform others, with precise deadlines, about what is going on in industry.
Q: You said in your speech that the Green Revolution started in India in the 50s brought damage and famine. Could you explain how that came about?
A: The use of chemicals for intensive agriculture caused the Indian government to run up debts with multinationals, which left the people in poverty. The rice could be used by these peoples, provided their governments did not get so seriously in debt that they had to hand over all the proceeds to their creditors and start massive export activity. In Brazil all local products have been replaced by soya. This change of land use has made it impossible to find any other kind of vegetable, so that farmers have been forced to export all their crops. We can see from this how the introduction of these biotechnologies can go beyond the land and change a whole society. Peoples become completely dependent on agribusiness and speculators.
Q: I recently read in the European that Austria is going to take the EU to court because they do not want GM products, and because European food labelling does not show whether there is GM content. It seems also that Italy and Luxemburg may take the same action. Whether or not this is true, what can be done to keep GM foods out of Europe?
A: This is not an easy problem to solve. For example, at the time of the South African embargo their goods were sold to South America and from there to Europe. Chernobyl grain got to Italy. If we Vegetarians demand a Green Trademark guaranteeing product origin, this could be a way for us to defend ourselves. One example is the Nestlé boycott. A mere 0.1% drop in sales was sufficient for Nestlé to request a meeting with their opponents. We need to understand that our power as consumers is considerable - we must exploit this great potential and make good use of our "No, thanks!"
- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)