MILAN Since he was appointed in April this year, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio — Italian Minister for Agricultural and Forestry Policy — has declared war on any genetically modified organism of agricultural interest. And the fight against GMOs will be central to the electoral program of his Party, the Greens, during the Italian general election campaign next spring.
The stand adopted by Pecoraro Scanio and his Party could well embarrass the Centre–Left coalition led by Giuliano Amato. The coalition cannot afford to clash with the Greens on a subject that stirs up such strong emotions in the Italian public — emotions that are not diminished by widespread ignorance of the facts.
With no more than 40 biotech companies, Italy does not have a strong position in the European life sciences market, which includes more than a thousand firms. Of the 8,013 biotech patents filed with the European Patent Office during the period 1987–1997, 4,016 came from US-based companies or institutions, 743 from Germany, 683 from the UK, 535 from France and only 119 from Italy.
Nevertheless, Italy is among the first European countries in terms of field experiments of new genetically modified crops. According to EuropaBio (the European Association of Biotech Firms; data April 1999), 92% of the 6,954 field experiments in the EU have been carried out in the following countries: France (2,651), the Netherlands (1,434), Italy (679), the UK (644), Germany (582) and Spain (389). But Minister Pecoraro Scanio has made it clear that he intends to ban any controlled field experimentation of genetically modified plants in Italy; he is against GMOs for ethical and practical reasons.
The Minister's ethical convictions are well summarised in the following statements, made in a debate with the geneticist Edoardo Boncinelli ('Chez Frankenstein?'
But the practical reasons are more convincing. "Italy," maintains the Minister, "doesn't need genetic manipulated organisms because the world image of its agricultural products is based on quality and wholesomeness. So, our Ministry intends to support and increase scientific research on the many aspects of organic agriculture, and on agricultural mechanisation. Italy is a world leader in agricultural mechanisation: we prefer to strengthen this sector rather than scientific research on GMOs. In particular, we intend to stop any field experiment on genetically modified plants that could affect the adjacent 'natural' agricultural fields."
So how does the Italian public respond to this? According to an opinion survey by CENSIS, a national research institute, of 800 Italians, 48.4% of the people interviewed claimed not to be informed on biotechnology; among the informed people, 27.8% underlined the benefits of GMOs and 23.8% worried about the health risks.
Definitely opposed to the attitude of the minister is SIGA — Italian Society of Agricultural Genetics — a scientific society that includes academics, lecturers and researchers in the field. In a comment signed by its President, Enrico Porceddu "feels that the minister's censure of a scientific sector with such great potential gives serious cause of concern." In particular, the Society of Agricultural Genetics states that genetic technology, instead of damaging, can help organic agriculture in Italy, because "the production of foodstuffs typical of Mediterranean agriculture and diet may be further improved and developed in cleaner agricultural systems, freer from chemical inputs."
An invitation to engender a more informed scientific debate comes from Arturo Falaschi, director-general of ICGEB — International Centre of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, an international research institute based in Trieste, Italy and Delhi, India — and member of the board of directors of CNR, the National Research Centre.
In Falaschi's opinion, scientists and opinion makers must explain clearly to the public the real risks GMOs present for mankind and the environment. For instance, the use of genetic markers based on antibiotic-resistance in genetically modified vegetables could represent a risk for man, and the horizontal transmission of genes from genetically modified plants to other plants represents an environmental risk. Another risk not yet completely under control is that of the possible increase in allergic reactions caused by the introduced genes.
But the public should be made aware that research is under way to find mechanisms that avoid those risks. For instance, second generation GMOs could contain genes that are conditionally expressed — only under particular conditions. Genes could also be expressed only in the foliage, where they can fight the parasites, and not in the seeds, which are eaten by humans. According to Falaschi, the public debate must be informed in order to put pressure on the big producers to research and adopt the new, advanced solutions, even though they are more expensive.
Edoardo Boncinelli, a geneticist working with the Istituto San Raffaele, Milan, agrees that the debate should be better informed, but warns "Nothing is 'natural' in our food. It is more likely to be poisoned by a bottle of milk than by a bag of genetically modified soya beans. If we can make a plant resistant to parasites by changing one of its genes, we can save tons of chemical pesticides. And, we must remember that Italy is the world's second consumer of chemical phyto-drugs."