Interview with Guy-Olivier Segond :

Retranscription of the interview (selection)


Aurélie Jaecklé, Romain Jordan, Luca Willig


YRE - Can you present yourself, please ?
G.-O. Segond - My name is Guy-Olivier Segond, I was born in 1945. I followed classical studies, then did a law degree, and finally I am the State Councilor in charge of the social work and of the health in Geneva canton.

So, we are going to start with what concerns you the most, politics. Why do you think genetics are a political debate ?
 Well, for the first time in the history of humanity, the human being knows how to change the genetic inheritance in the vegetal, animal or human order, and somewhere this is a new and extraordinary power, in relation to the history of humanity. We can believe or not in God, in a strength that made the world, is it from divine origin, or is it sheer luck? (laugh). We are not discussing that...but anyhow it is the first time man has the possibility of changing vegetal genetic inheritance - it is the famous case of the maize - of the animals - these are experiences which have been made with lambs - even the humans, we will come to it later. So, it is an extraordinary progress (that comes out from the ordinary), it is a progress that creates political questions, that interests the whole community.
 In itself a scientifique discovery is neutral, it becomes a benefit or an illeffect by the different applications we can do of it. If we decide for example for the human being to use our knowledge in the genetics so that all new born babies are a success, that they are blond, if the parents want them to be blond, that have braun hair, or red, or that they have blue eyes, green, etc. we are starting to have a power that provokes very important reactions. But if we use this power for treatments, for example to fight the « mucoviscidose », to correct a defective gene that provokes this illness, it is a medicine that can treat, like an aspirin to help the head ache, like the tritherapies that sort of blocs the AIDS in its evolution ;  but it is of course a medicine that has a exceptional strength, as to manage to stop the out burst of the mucoviscidose, we have to change the genetics inheritance of one person, by correcting here defective gene. And all this, the human being has not yet dared touching it.

But more precisely, what is the role of the politicians in all this ?
 [The genetics problem] refers to other reflections, that proceed in an other order, and that make that in a certain way the politic authority is confused or doubtful, because she can not work with here traditional modus operandi - left reading, right reading, transactions in the middle, etc. - and in fact, in this business, what the politic authority (by the government and the parliament, after having had consultations) most say, is what we consider like acceptable from the majorityís of the communityís point of view, and what we do not consider like acceptable. [...]
 There is a number of problems, whom we see immediately that their are heavy problems and whom we can not leave the care of to a professor in a laboratory, to a citizen in his apartment, the care of resolving them. And so we need a public debate, democratic, that is conducted in the presse, a debate which is institutional, it is conducted in the parliaments and the governments, with decisions that say « well we accept this and not this », etc.

So we have seen what is the politicians role. What about the political cleavage left / right, does it seem to you important and influent in what concerns the position about genetics ?
 No I do not really think so, you see in politics (not only in Switzerland, in whole Europe today) that the big classifications rest on an economic analyses of the society in the XIXth century, with some balance of power, employer employee, classes war, etc. Today the big political formations are separated in themselves. [...]
 Not to take a problem of the type genetics, genic therapies et mucoviscidose, but rather a problem like the genetically modified maize, you can do a right lecture, which consists in saying that there is an economical interest for the pharmaceutics industries, for the agrobusiness, etc. of having a maize that resists all sorts of animals, that could destroy the harvestings, etc. ; so there is an economical interest for the multinationals, for the pharmaceutic industry. And then you can have a left lecture that should take the opposite of all this, by saying not being for the interest of the chemist, of the farm-produce, etc. But you can also have a left lecture saying there are starvations on earth : if we have the capability of producing maize, wheat, etc., genetically modified so that there are autoprotectid against the agressions of insects, animals, etc.,  we maybe have the possibility of feeding the whole planet , without any starvations.
 So it is very difficult to say that the left is for, the right is against, the right is for, the left is against ; these elements that are to take in appreciation are, all the same, more complicated than this, today.

Now lets talk about the consumers : the searchers handle vegetal and animal genes and us, consumers, will find these genes in our aliments. This creates fears and some some people even ask themselves : «  If we eat genetically modified aliments, will we become ourselves genetically modified ? » What do you think about this question ?
 If you have all these interrogations, we do, in some way, question the progress. [...] There has always been, in the human story, modifications and adaptations for the human being relative to his environment.
 If we take the food - you talked about aliments - today people do not ask themselves this question any more, but when we can have a fruit, without it being of the right season. [...] If you take the apples, to take something frequent ; todayís apples have nothing to do with the apples from the beginning of the century, the treatments that are done, the crossings of sorts, so that the apple has the right size to fit in to the boxes of 6 apples in the Migros or in the Coop, etc. Now there are out soil cultures, again for the human being that has always worked the earth to get some fruits, cereals, etc., and no we do not need to cultivate the earth any more ; we can do out soil cultures, with lights that are on 24 hours per day, with wattrings that are not only rain water, but feeding substances, etc. So I would say that all this is in a trend, it is not a rupture in one go, even if there were geneticall modifications. To be true, there are some all the time, because when you mix together two or three different sorts of apples, to create a fourth one, when you mix the fourth one with other new sorts, you make, not in laboratories, but with the help from natural mechanisms, some sort of genetical modifications that are attached to the reproduction.
 So there is always this modification, a man and a woman do not have children who have an identical genetic inheritance, it is new genetic inheritance issued from the mixing of the parentís inheritances. There always are modifications that take place in the coding and the genetic inheritance.

Is the security optimal ? Do risks exist ?
I am a lawyer, I am not a scientific. There certainly always are some risks.
 We ,must not eliminate the risk. It is a law that we know quiet well but that is bizarre : in the Mid Age, we used to live in a more risky society, the risk was admitted. When you arrive in a society which is sure at 98%, the 2% of security that are missing are more painful than the 50% of insecurity which missed the man in the Mid Age, who knew he lived in a dangerous society.

Do you think that the consumers are enough informed ?
 Yes I do. There are not as well informed as a scientist, but on no any other subject they are as well informed as this ; on the precise mechanical of the fiscality, of the budget, of the economy, of the Stock Exchange, they have a general knowledge ; it is not precise, it is not exact, but it is enough if there is a debate, to forge ourselves an opinion, that is in any way not definitive. And more than this, philosophically, it is always delicate when you forbid something.

In Switzerland, a law imposes analyses of the products issued from genetic manipulation ; but we can imagine illegal acts, like cultures of GMO not declared or the sail of products with components genetically modified, without labeling. Do you think we can trust the control systems of GMO in Switzerland and in other countries ? Are all the precautions taken ?
 I do think so. These proceedings are well known donít they ? [...] If you have a genetically modified product that is put on the market, very fast in our actual society there will be somebody who will say « but this is a genetically modified product, you are not allowed to sell it ». There are some controls, donít they, controls that we actually have. There are some medicines that are not allowed in Switzerland, for example, this doesnít mean they do not have been ratified by the OICM (Regional Organization for the Control of Medicines), this doesnít mean that the chemist can not sell it in a corner, but this will be known quiet quickly, and the medicines will be taken out, the chemist will be sanctioned, and this can go to take back his practice authorization as chemist, we can close his shop. It is a big risk. We are never 100% sure, but what is a 100% sure ?

So you think that we can not reach a total security ?
 Never, never.

Would the initiative «For the protection of genetics » have allowed such a security ?
 I think that you can not have systems that are a 100% sure. If we think about technologic accidents that have happened, we have examples in front of the eyes. .About Tchernobyl, the security system was not enough to prevent of the catastrophe.
 If you take something closer to us, Creys-Malville, where the risk is well known, well measured : it was estimated that there was a risk all the 10'000 years, so we could take the risk, but all the same, there has been some problems nearly since the beginning, even though it was completely controlled.
 If you take an airplane, we saw it recently with Swissair, I do not know exactly what happened with the SR-111 flight, but it is sure that something has happened that should not of happened and that the flightís security was not guaranteed any more. There is no 100% of security.

We know that the swiss laws on this subject slowdown the researche ; as a result, the benefit of the farm produce multinationals (Novartis, Monsanto,...) is also reduced. Do you think that some societies would be ready to get in the way of the consumers security to speed up research, and benefit ?
 No, I do not think so. In fact, it is very « swiss » to want to create a law which is the swiss law. All these questions have been asked in the developed world. They are controlled in the US, they are regulated in Europe.
 About what we have done in our country, I am not sure that these swiss laws slowdown the researche, because they do not exist : some constitutional discussions do exist, but not a lot of legal discussions exist ; there are some plans of laws and discussions being prepared about genetics. Lacking of federal laws, the counties keep a competence, in Geneva, we have adopted the american law in the Geneva law. The council of State can say that as long as there isnít a federal law, we apply, on the Geneva country, a Geneva law., but this lwa is the same as the american one. The research societies, after having studied what they could do or not do in the US, and having seen that in Geneva, it works the same thing, have to take a decision, must know if they stay in Geneva, or go to Italy, to France, to Germany, ...the fact that this is actually the same law as in the States for the genic therapy implies that they know this law.

So what are the purposes of these societies if it isnít to earn money?
Booth. [...]
 The societies who have done this, have discovered that, they have saved thousand and thousand of lives around the world, and they have earned money, which has financed there researches for the following medicines. And it is maybe the money theyíve earned with the medicines for transplantationís that has allowed them to pay and to finish the researches against AIDS., for the trithérapies. It is difficult...of course they do not have for only ideal the good of humanity [laugh], but who has it ?
 In fact there is an chain of events which leads to a scientific brake out, this gives a medicine, this allows to save thousand and thousand of lives, we earn some money with this, only a few years (from the moment it is protected as intellectual property) and this falls in the public, and everybody can use it. And it is the same thing in genetics.

How can the State or the people protect better the consumer, if special laws donít exist yet ?
 It is coming. It starts always by the Constitution, the federal laws and the rules of application. Now we are at the Constitution floor, it has been voted ; then there is the floor of the law, it is being built, and finally there is the rule of application floor. I think there are slow process that allows us to see what to limit. For example, there is a consensus ; knowing that we are able to change the defective genes that release the mucoviscidose, part of the population will say that if there is a mistake it is Gods will, it is the natures will, we mustnít touch. At this moment you are neither doing transplantationís, because there is a cardiac or kidney insufficiency, it is also Godís will, or the natureís will, as you want... Or we say « yes we do it for this, but we forbid it in the reproduction field, not to allow choice babies ».
 You see all these mechanisms are very delicate. [...] It is all the humanity story that is behind us. Here, it is a step a little bit peculiar, because we are touching the genetic inheritance. But when we were at the reproduction stage, the pill has also been a instrument of emancipation for women.

The promoters of the use of genetics in agriculture (Novartis,...) promise that the new products will bring a lot of advantages, as well for the environment than for the consumers or the farmers, besides we also promise to improve the productivity and the life conditions in the third world. Do you think this is true and possible, or is it only a publicity for the societies picture, to « hide » the principal lucrative aim?
 I think it is a arrangement of booth. The World Organization for the health has eradicated the small pox. [...]
 If, by the improvement of the cultures, by an amelioration of efficiency, if by a bigger security, a bigger nutritious value of wheat, of cereals, etc. - all this managed by different ways (it can also be done by fertilizers, by all sorts of things) - you manage to feed the planetís populations, we must consider it is something positive. [...]

How do you envisage to future of genetics (point de vue politic, economic, scientific,) ?
 It is very difficult to predict the future.
 I think that there will be discussions, and that there will be cut. [...] It is very difficult to say what is going to happen. I think that genetics is our generations discussion, maybe in 20 years this will have been abandoned like nuclear energy because we will have found something else. I canít say to you « it is like this, the way is this way, I know what is going to happen » ; each time I did this, it was wrong...[laugh].

Thank you for having answered to our questions.