by Michael Curti, Bénédict de Moerloose
Q: Are you really a member of the Greenpeace organisation?
A: Absolutely, I am the spokesman since six years.
Q: What is your position concerning the genetic manipulations?
A: Greenpeace has an official position which is to ask for an arrest of the "dissemination", which means for us that we do not want any genetically modified plants in the cultures and also no patents for that. It is our fundamental position. But now, this position has slightly changed, since obviously some countries and industries encourage the dissemination of genetically modified cultures. For this reason, we ask that these genetically modified cultures are at least separated from the other cultures, in order that the consumer knows or at least can choose what he really wants to eat.
Q: From where does come this position?
A: The transgenic intervention on a plant goes through various test barriers that nature has already inflicted to itself. That means that usual plants have already difficulty to survive by themselves, if they are not watered, etc. They have been selected to become more and more performant, but in cultivated places. When they are left free in nature, they produce very little and they often don*t reach maturity to reproduce themselves.
The transgenic plants, when they are disseminated, can either contaminate the wild plants with their transgenic genes or they may represent an unfair competition for the wild plants, because for example they can produce an insecticide which cannot be produced in the same manner by a wild plant. There is also a big problem which is due to the fact that transgenic plants are always licensed, that is to say that farmers have to pay if they want to keep part of the harvest in order to use them again next year, and if it is not the case, the plants are gifted with a gene (called a stop gene) which inactivates their ability to reproduce. This represents a general problem for agriculture, because it makes a strong competition for local species which are often better suited to the place where they are cultivated, because farmers know their country, their seeds etc. When the plants are licensed, farmers will not be able to do that anymore. There is also a big health problem which is due to the fact that many plants are manipulated by using a marker gene for antibiotic resistance and therefore they contain this gene. Several countries have prohibited plants which contain such resitant genes to antibiotics which is, unluckily, not the case for Switzerland. All thes points make that there is a combination of risks.
Q: Personaly, when did you take this position?
A: It was before entering Greenpeace. And personaly, I think that scientific people should be clever enough to enact for themselves a moratory on genetic manipulations.
Q: Is your position linked with an ethical question?
A: Essentially, yes
Q: For you, should we wait for more knowledge?
A: The searchers should perform fundamental research not funded by industries which require immediate results. It is the problem of some soja (Monsanto) or corn (Novartis): these plants have been commercialised because the industries wanted to be first to get the market. But this advantage can have a boomerang effect, for example the cotton of Monsanto is a failure. And now, they are farmers who attack Monsanto.
Q. Can we trust the legislation in Switzerland for the genetically modified organisms?
A: No, it is not possible to trust the controls done by the authorities. Indeed, they are often under the influence of industries. Greenpace has acted several times either for impeding the arrival in Switzerland of unauthorized transgenic cereals or for ordering the removal from shops of genetically modified products which were not labeled correctly. The authorities in Basel have for example admitted that Greenpeace plays an important role since they are themselves unable to supervise everything. And it is only after having authorised the first transgenic soja that the Swiss Federal Office of Environment has enrolled geneticists and microbiologists.
Q: All precautions are therefore not taken?
A: No, all necessary precautions are not taken and thus essentially for a question of money.
Q: Are all industries the same?
A: No, those which develop drugs need to be very serious because they are the only ones which are really checked. The big fear is in the fields of agriculture and food.
Q: What do you do for that?
A: Till now, we have not done anything really special in Switzerland but we perform continuous checks. On the opposite, in France, we have opened a network which is called "info-conso " (information for consumer), which provide informations to guarentee the content of products.
In Switzerland however, we are helping in the preparation of an international conference (which will be held in Columbia) and we hope that all countries will sign a protocol on biosafety.
Q: Do you think that the maxim "we become what we eat" is true?
A. No, but there is a risk that some indirect effects may occur.
Q: Thus, there is an indirect risk for human being?
Q: Do you think that some industries could be prejudicial for consumers in order to speed research, and consequently their benefit?
A: Yes, clearly Novartis and Nestlé. Novartis has for example commercialized a corn with a resistant gene to an antibiotic (ampicillin) and clearly nobody wants to eat such a gene.
Q: Do you communicate with these industries?
Little. Novartis has a poor communication, which is not the case for Nestlé, for example.
Q: Some industries promise to cure a lot of diseases with genetic therapy. Do you believe that?
A: For the time being, there is nothing which really works as a therapy. May-be it will come. It is indeed a field where a true research can be done, in an academic environment where precautions are taken. But I have also the impression that they promise things to some people who have a difficult life, sus as patienst with cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy. These people have been heavily utilized recently in a vote on this topic in Switzerland.
What can happen is that when everything will be understood, screening tests will be performed. And we have already screening tests which are able to detect 140 very expensive diseases. Consequently interruptions of pregnancies are performed. In United States, some parents have not been accepted for coverage insurance because they had not performed a genetic analysis of their future baby. And thus, instead of taking care of patients, they will be eliminated: for curing disease, sick people will be eliminated. From a financial point of view, you can argue.. but for human diversity and our ability to be compassionate and to live with people who are neither beautiful nor clever, I think it is a big loss.
I often think to science fiction: a more and more selected society where several classes exist and in the upper one live only the rich, the beautiful etc. and in the lower the disabled people, who have nothing and for whom the parents are unable to afford an abortion since they have no money... It is too simple to say that either you do an abortion, or you have no insurance coverage.
It is a problem which goes very far and which is difficult to solve, because it is a global problem, also linked to the problem of overpopulation. Do we want to go on to accept everybody or only people who will not cost too much and therefore who will be productive... It is a very complicated problem which has religious and ethical aspects, which are beyond the scope of Greenpeace. It is a huge debate, but what we want is that a responsible attitude is adopted now.
Q: In summary, you are neither for, nor against genetic engineering?
You cannot really be for or against a technology. We are against the possible misuse of this technology.
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