Novartis interview

Project : "Young reporters for environnement"

Mélanie Fischer, Sébastien Flaccavento, Ronald Asmar with help from Sanda Ljubicic

Interview with M.Gay : director of laboratory of varieties at Novartis Bâle, 5 mars 1999.

Collège Calvin le 21.03.99

We start with presenting us and by presenting the YRE project.

He immediately begins to speak:

" At Novartis, we don't produce transgenic food, we produce seeds. We create a variety, and the chain is very long between us and those that find in their plate the derivative products of the soy or the corn. On the one hand there is the whole research to create this variety, on the other hand, farmers who plant the new variety and people that collect what agriculturists planted. Then people that buy the harvest to collectors, people that transform these products, that collect them until they go in in the food chain. Food chain, not only the one of men, but also, especially in the case of cereals, the one of animals that themselves arrives later in our food chain. Therefore the chain is very long, and it is what makes that as regards to the communication, Novartis didn't have the experience to be exposed to the general public (hesitations). Our customers are agriculturists, and we didn't discern quickly enough that the general public was concerned by what we make, for a good reason : we didn't see a breakpoint between the past techniques and genetics. We had not foreseen the cultural shock that it would represent. This cultural shock mobilized a certain number of objectors that intervened at the level of the big public, agitating terror.

This is an introduction to tell you that it took a certain time for us to realize that the general public had to be one of our interlocutors and we bizarely didn't know how to communicate with this general public. In our other activities, essentially in the pharmaceutical sector, we never deals directly with the sick, we always passes by a prescripteur, that is the physician. Of the same way, in seeds, we passes by prescripteurses: those that buy our products. Our partners were prescripteurses. This is what explains this defect of communication and that let the free field to this opposition.

This is the first point.

The second point is…(he interrupts itself, to ask us if we feel clear enough concerning what represents a genetically improven seed; he insist on the improven " term "…). Why improven? What we tried to make was to these products more attractive for our usual customers, agriculturists and to offer some alternative solutions to problems that they landed until now traditional " manner ": against bugs, we uses insecticides; the use of manure... everybody said that insecticides and manures are bad. But imagine what would happen if we didn't use any insecticides. Those that extol an agriculture, so-called organic, or biologic, have a marginal position in agriculture for two reasons: the first is that outputs are much lower than those of the modern agriculture. The cost is higher, what makes of it a feeding for superior and comfortable average classes. This demand corresponds to a cultural need, a need of relations. The biologic agriculture arrives on a plan where it is relation; the wealth of this agriculture is that it creates some different relations, whereas today in most cases, the only relation that we have with food, especially since the advent of supermarkets, it is with marks. The biologic agriculturist to a certain way re-establishes a more personal contact between the consumer and the agriculturist, until besides, supermarkets seize gradually, of the biologic agriculture, and create marks, provoking a decline of the demand.

The third point concerning the biologic agriculture (he insists thereon, because tenantses of the biologic agriculture are paradoxically against the genetic engineering), is that these tenantses of the biologic agriculture have liabilities of means for the meantime. It means that this agriculture gets its stamp provided à condition the agriculturist respects means (no use of chemical manures, of insecticides, etc.). But it is an obligation of means, not of results : the biologic agriculturist doesn't guarantee, paradoxically, a quality whatever she is, nor gustatory, nor sanitary. It is a reputation, for a factory that to hold aware its customers, it is a question of confidence. We see that contact is very important and it is en cela that the cut (between Novartiss and consumers) choked something important. I spoke of means obligation, and not of results obligation; to come back to what we make, we try to solve problems that put himself to agriculturists, and by the same to the whole society. As for example to produce as much and as good as possible. As much as possible can seem obvious even though we are flooded by information about the agricultural surpluses. There are some simple things (he gives us numbers of the demographic evolution of the population: it results that there are less and less arable hectares per capita to the thread of years, and that we will have more and more difficulties to feed the world population). So, if there are less hectares by inhabitants, it is necessary to produce more on more reduced lands. It is an absolutely implacable logic… We mustn't forget that every one has a daily need in calories quite important, and that the majority of this contribution comes from cereals. Numbers speak of themselves! It is a context in which evolves the modern agriculture, and we (Novartis) are one of participants of the constant in this modern agriculture. We are a multinational, it means that we sell our products in about hundred country, and that we have millions of customers, therefore we have a responsibility towards these customers.


So, what a seed today?

It is a complex product, this is not simply one seed that somebody sows and of which we harvests the fruit… We can look at seeds on two plans: one technical, the other legal. On the technical plan, we are obliged to make good products, otherwise agriculturists are going to buy them to our competitors. It is necessary to think that in all that business, cereals constitute 80% of our feeding. Cereals is life, the energy. It is the starch, and we are eaters of starch. The starch is in cereals, potatoes, sweet potatoes. The starch is what makes us turn . Runners bicyclists, dopey either not, eat 7000 calories, among which 6000 of starch!!!

To improve the constituent, it is to unite in one variety qualities that are first in different plants, in order to create a new variety as good as possible. Those that take care of it are selectors. And Novartis takes care of selection. The selection is a quite slow and complex process : the journey between the descended product of the first crossing and the definitive product (that is going to be merchandised) is long. Therefore this work is always made in the long term. This long term concerns Novartis, because products that its selectors now finalize are foreseen for 2009-2010, when demography will have changed. Then the selector is going to make crossings (he explains to us the techniques of the gene insulation, of the marking, and so on. ).

Us :With only one changed gene, does the product deserves the OGM appellation, Genetically Modified Organism?

Mr. Gay : " We cannot come back on the OGM appellation, that is a dedicated appellation, but it is certainly a clumsy appellation, because human has modified plants genetically for thousands of years. The first wheat, for example, did certainly not have the appearance or qualities of the present wheat. All the work of selection is a work of hybridization.

Is what is now made concerning genetic engineering a stage is in the evolution of agriculture?

(10 minutes of the interview are missing because our tape recorder stopped at that moment. During these ten minutes, he answered to this question positively).

Do you think that the fear that causes the genetic engineering close to the public is justified?

For me, it is definitely not justified. But everything that is new scares. In this precise case, the fear is owed to the fact that the majority of people almost don't know anything about the topic. The possibility to intervene on life is so foreign of people's that they are as much more appreciable to this speech. And when we tell them that we modifie the "living", they refuse. The culture refuses that the living becomes an object that one modifies. And the human being part of the living, he also feels like an object. This reaction is quite logical: "They touch the living, so they touch me...", but without discerning there's a long time that seeds are objects, that even animals are objects of trade! And this since all the times…Our pets, our dogs have a material value. The living has always been a trade object...

So nature is an object of trade?

The nature is an object of trade,of course!! The earth is being sold, the grapevine is being sold, the grape is being sold, wine is being sold… Fortunately! Do you know people that work for nothing, you? (laughters). Apart from some students who will find again to unemployment after…. It is necessary to mistrust of the word nature, that is completely denatured. Find me of the nature! If you find some on the top of the Mount-white, it is not very hospitable… and again, it begins to be a little dirty! There is nothing that we can call Nature. The man lives in an environment that he models. I believe that the word environment has a sense. Nature, excuse me, I don't know what it is…

Is it therefore an utopia?

Let me tell you, nature is a concept of marketing. The nature is a biologic law whole. Et encore, we comes back to the marketing. The nature is a species of ideal that some skillful people try to sell you...

There are two senses to nature: on one hand the natural laws, and on the other hand, the idea of need that men have to insert themselves in a world, to participate in the whole of the world.

Apart from that, I know the word environment, because the word environment has a sense: it is something permanently modeled by human.

We can say that you model the nature. May one day objects that you manufacture (OGM), escape your control and create something of harmful that you would not be able to control at all?

It is the problem of the mad organism that escapes its creator's control. That takespart of a myth that dates of a long time (as Frankenstein). You must know that some of the modifications that the man created in nature has escaped his control…(ex: killers bees in Brazil, or rabbits in Australia…). The man sometimes made silliness, but it is while doing these silliness that he created some genetic distresses (for the rabbit in Australia : we introduced a whole génome where there there was not anything…). When today we takes the control of one, or twogenes, we acts in the setting of a knowledge, we acts in a more controlled way that we made it before, because we made some considerable progress. Therefore the objection that you make…We can dream of the mad scientist, but this is not the case at Novartis, for a good reason: our objective is not to lose something that we could make fructify.

Could the resistance to the total herbicides spend to other plants, as the bad herbs?

How many active molecules of herbicides do you know we use? There are pretty much forty molecules : the choice concerning herbicides is big ! One of the most important herbicides to corn ever known is the athrazine. We are proud of it, because it comes from Novartis. We are less proud of it today because there was so much of it poured on the Earth that we find everywhere a few of it. Fortunately, it is the least poisonous product that you can imagine…

To come back to your question, the corn resists the athrazine because it has a gene of resistance to the athrazine. We used the athrazine on billions of hectares through the world, and evrything was very well for many years. But one day, unfortunately, some bad plants became resistant to the athrazine. Of all these plants, there is none that became resistant of it like others! That means that the gene of the corn had not spent to these bad herbs.

And how can you know it?

Ben to find…, therefore there is a set of mutation that made that a protein became resistant, whereas the corn, chose him one fashion of resistance, who makes that, is what is the target of the athrazine in the other plants that? . Does that mean that the protein who is not capable to recognize? All that to tell you….

So it is the luck that makes that! That could have arrived!

Yes, it is a luck that makes that. What I meant was that there had not been any transfer of genes. History told us that the gene of resistance to the athrazine could not arrive at other plants.

But it may be possible with other products... It is not an absolute ?

This is not a problem of product, it is a problem of gene exchange. If exchanges of genes were as easy as that, it is obvious that the resistant gene to the athrazine would have passed to other plants. What is important is that we have there a history of twenty years and that it is an absolutely unique dimension, because the athrazine was the most popular herbicide. All the corn of the world, at one time, was, practically, sprinkled of herbicide.

So we have a fundamental experience, and this gene didn't pass in microbes. Then what is very important is that when we speak about the resistance to the penicillin, people tell us: " You don't know what's going to happen in the future ". As a matter of fact we always find again similar existing situations. Why would the situation be different about the genetic engineering? We shocked genetic laws at only one moment, just as we introduced the gene. As soon as that moment is over, laws of genetics are the same for the transgène.

You're presenting us the thing as a very positive thing. Are there inconveniences to that or not? Known, or maybe potential inconveniences ?

There is not a product to the world that was as régulé that apples? Why? Because regulations preceded the product. Regimentations must be created with the progression of the hold of conscience. Here the hold of conscience was made before, there was not a product as régulé as that and therefore if there was anything we couldimagine to represent a major inconvenience, we could come back there.

Is it possible that one day the pyrale will find the means to resist your corn?

It is true for the penicillin, it is true for herbicides, it is true for all thing, when you try to eliminate a living being or a living being race or an organism of the evolution, function exactly always so that one day one finds hindrances that permit the resistance. Therefore it is quite probable that one day the pyrale will find the means to resist the Bt corn. Then to give you a simple face, our political rule was that our corn was such a beautiful product that it was necessary for us to manage so that the resistance arrives as late as possible. Because it is necessary at the level of the agriculturist. You see, when an agriculturist puts his insecticide, he puts it when bugs arrive, and the following dayit rains : he is bothered, or he uses an natural enemy of the pyrale. Therefore there are some considerable advantages.

But when the pyrale will become resistant to your corn, what are going to make to treat it? Will the present insecticides be still efficient?

It is sure. But one won't stop there, because now one made a route…((((il there has a culture, a culture of the environment, you, you were born in the culture of the environment, it is a culture that appeared everywhere, that also appeared at home. You think well that to the moment where gens…pensezes well that when there were three billions of inhabitants on the Earth, there was a third that burst hunger, one billion, a billion and half, of them and now one is to six billions, and there are less of them a billion that bursts hunger. You think well that to the moment where one was three billions, it was necessary to pass twenty quintals of wheat to forty quintals of wheat, and forty quintals of corn to fifty quintals of corn, for reasons of feeding that are going to take a rest in ten years, or in twenty years, and that one lived, us, just after the war. You think well that it is for that that people said that the environment it is the last of our worries. And the same concept to treat the environment badly was a concept that was absent of the culture. There is a culture that is noted, that it is sure, and this culture…faut not to believe that she/it evolved differently for you that for us. Our society must evolve therefore with this culture. And today one makes insecticides as one made it there are twenty years, thirty years. And could you put yourselves the problem of the D.D.T.. The D.D.T. is a fantastic insecticide, who has éradiquer finally, practically the malaria in a lot of places. Today one is able to consider it like a misfortune for the environment. to Put you the question of the number of life that the D.D.T. saved and the number of time where the D.D.T is????. Then me I say that voilà, if you take the example of the D.D.T., is it indeed an interesting example, because it is????. Take a concrete example, and put the in a balance, watch what justified the use of the D.D.T and problems that he puts. It is not necessary to believe that one is going to take out some. One can improve a lot in a situation….. (incomprehensible)… .refuser a question, it have the choice. Today people in Indonesia are in an absolutely heavy situation, you have people that oppose to plants transgéniqueses and this fact make that agriculturists use insecticides. It is that the choice. Then one can make otherwise that to use insecticides. No, the choice is there: agriculturists don't see trop…(incompréhensible)…Il there doesn't have anything in notions technologiques…vouses have still the choice to make and the choice not to make, and one measures inconveniences of the two unfortunately very rarely. Concerning cereals: they are almost always treated today against the parasitic mushrooms. Some mushrooms manufacture an extremely violent toxin (example of cacahouètes). Therefore mushrooms are responsible of the the accumulation of toxins and it is for that that the treated cereals, in general, are healthier than cereals no treated. That makes that the Bt corn is healthier than the normal corn)))))))))

Do you believe that the genetic engineering, the new techniques, will bring people to have a better feeding?

I believe that of now and already the Bt corn is better on the food plan. It partially eliminates toxins, I say partially because unfortunately, we have not found yet the specialized genes in the struggle against mushrooms, but we have already a scientific progress. Therefore the Bt corn is healthier for our feeding. But in the future the resistance to these illnesses is one of our privileged targets. The day where we will know how to make genes that will make that, that will be a big success. And there, there will be the demand. Maybe that the consumer will discern the advantage. At present, he doesn't discern the advantage, of the less, the green frighten so much, that people don't discern the advantage.

So the Bt corn, the genetic transformations, bring no risk, but on the contrary an advantage?

I promise you, that makes three years that I am solicited by televisions, etc., I'venever been able to imagine any risk. That would greatly have facilitated my task. That would have given to journalists some bread to grind. Unfortunately when you tell them " No, I am distressed, I don't see some ", then they come out again us the same histories, because everything that I have just told you on the gene, the carrier of genes, the ampicilline, etc., you can imagine that these are not the same people that asked me those questions, these questions , people ask them to us since 1992. Who is those that ask them to us? It is commissions of biologic security, it is the official organizations. These critiques that people make to us today, take in fact questions that have been examined by the specialized commissions, in the United States before, and to which answers were lucid. It is indeed there that there is a phenomenon of opinion, it means that we are not in a scientific phenomenon and technique, but in front a phenomenon of opinion. And there, there is something that doesn't joue. What do medias make? Medias take Mr Gay for Novartis, and Mr Thing for Greenpeace. "Mr Gay says this is not dangerous, and Mr for Greenpeace says that it is dangerous : one point everywhere, but that one (Mr from Grennpeace) make me fear, so I'm going to give reason to that one". However, me I am not Philippe Gay, I am a scientific gait, I follow some objective results, I speak because some commissions of specialists, that are scientists, watched our files. It is a whole of knowledge, therefore when the television puts Philippe Gay in front of Thing of Greenpeace, and when it says one by one, it is completely false, that doesn't have anything to see. Mr Greenpeace doesn't have any scientific basis. And me, I represent, I have what is only a collection of works only expressed put together. Therefore it is not Gay that speaks. And it is that that the media phenomenon tried always… to create a situation…they oppose two opinions. Me this are not opinions, it is facts. Then one tried to create a debate between two people who have some different opinions. Then there, you cannot speak of science without making opinion, the science wrote itself. It is written under shape of objective reports, that you can consult, this is not an opinion. And thisis all the difference, it is what creates the media problem. Which is less serious in Switzerland that in other countries of Europe.

So we see that the Bt corn is very well, but you had the Bt corn patented, isn't it? Isn't all that a business of money ? ?

Of course we are there to win money!

If it is really well profitable for everybody, shouldn't others be able to make it too?

You create a new idea. Would you like somebody else, a bit more powerful than you, to tak eyour idea and to make the trade of your invention ?The inventor is the first to be able to merchandise his invention.

Yes, but can you say that you invented him indeed? It is the fruit of a collection of several country researches. You served yourself of these results : have you the right to say that you have invented it ?

There is always a stage of invention somewhere. Why didn't your parents invent him? Because they didn't take careabout it, and they didn't direct their investigatings, they didn't make researches for that. Therefore there is always an invention…So what is the patent? The patent is a past contract between a State and an inventor. The state tells the inventor: " You made something useful, then I am going to protect your rights, your invention. It means that I am going to forbid others to use your invention to a condition, it is that you put knowledge to the department of the public ". Therefore a patent is a publication. It is a contract that is passed between the state, between the community in general, the international organizations, it is a long-term national protection, to the condition that he publishes results, the technique he used. So he has it put to the disposition of people, and at the end of twenty years, fifteen years, eighteen years, everybody will have the right to use it, this protection being limited, it is a first thing, and everybody will have the right to benefit some, but especially what is interesting, it is that another inventor that says: " Holds, they made like that to find a thing, I'd be able to maybe make it like that "!. And therefore, he is going to invent a new process. So the notion of patent is a notion, finally, by which the community guarantees to the inventor the profit of his invention, provided that he puts his invention to the disposition of the public.

If I can allow, I would like to come back rightly on the previous question, it is that in fact, you, what you made… .il has there full of enterprises in the world that worried some. Then you have also based yourself on other researches, can you patent something then like that?

We don't patent something like that, we take a patent on certain aspect of the technology and as there are at least ten patents in that business, therefore we are going to discuss with the other inventors, we are going to tell them, we invented that, and you invented that, we are going to get okay to exploit that, so each withdraws a legitimate profit of it. And once again, what I told you of the knowledge of the progress, what I found and patented, go in in the political knowledge.

And the security costs extremely dear.

We've already spoken aboutthe consumer fear facing the labeling, the OGM mention ; according to you, is that something of good or of not well? Does it encourage people, or discourages them on the contrary?

I think that it is useful. Maybe that in two years, or in twenty years, people will forget labels. Why? Because in these new products there will be a certain advantage for them.

According to you, is it necessary to a total transparency?

We have all to win there, I think. The only problem that puts himself, it is the one of paths,it means that if people want paths without. Today to make a path of products with the soy without that it is modified genetically, is going to become very complicated. That risks to become the same thing for the corn. Today, close to the 40% of the soy are already OGM. Therefore, by definition, a product that contains the soy is OGM. The big problem is, if there are objectors to the OGM, how you are going to guarantee them the possibility that their feeding is not OGM. It is going to be necessary to create a path.

You say that you have all to win with the transparency, but couldn't we imagine that people, while seeing that, buy less, and therefore that it sells himself less well ? Wouldn't you on the contrary have a lack to win in this case?

We are in a period of crisis, where consumers don't understand again well of what it is about. If you make a small questionnaire, and that to ask you to people: "Do you take some OGM ?" products?, they'll answer to you: " Oh no no no, not at all "! But people pass in radiuses and fill their caddies...

But if people began to look at labels, maybe that would change ?

Listen, the first label that people watch, it is the price. They are right to make us confidence. You don't imagine that we are not poisoning the planet. Then we are taking care of them on one hand, and poisoning them of the other. It is not serious... Let kids take risks of this kind. This is not our profession, Novartis cannot have fun to that. This is not a game.

If I present you two plates, one with the normal soy, and in an another one the OGM soy. Which would you choose?

For me this is not a criteria of choice. For the corn, I would take the OGM.

A little while ago you told us that we were making a choice.

Yes, it is necessary to a criteria of choice. For the corn, I would take the OGM, but for the soy, I don't care, I would take least expensive.

Do you think that there will be a variation of cost?

I think that the OGM will be less dear.

How could the generalization of these techniques help the third-world?

(map of the world)

What you can make today is to increase the fruitfulness of hectares that exists. USA make the half of the corn of the world, thirty millions of hectares, total 500 millions of corn hectares. USA more Europe, it makes the half of the corn of the world. It is important. That means that the output must be elsewhere improven very extensively. If these countries suffer, it is because the conditions are there less favorable than in the moderate country agriculture. In countries that are paradises for plants. These are not paradises for plants for a good reason, it is that they are stuffed of bugs, of illnesses everywhere. Therefore there is a potential of considerable improvement, at the level of the third-world.

And the day where they will be sufficiently strong to go in in competition with us, that will be happiness, because they will be our customers.

To come back to your question: one, today's countries to strong fruitfulness should always contribute to the food of the world. There, it is a citizen that speaks to you, and no more the employee of Novartis. There must be a solidarity there. We won't make push ten tons of corn in places where one won't be able to pass three tons. Therefore countries that can make push ten tons of it, must make push ten tons of it. Afterwards, the problem it is to distribute it. Nevertheless you can make to progress, by the genetic engineering, bring in other, outputs in countries in voice of development and as the technology becomes more and more easy to use, we can hope that these progress are going to touch other species.

Is it concretely, thanks to the genetic engineering that we improve the output?

No, no, no! This is not thanks to the genetic engineering. The genetic engineering is a new technology that contributes to the improvement of the standard of living. But merely, it has brought us a change, that is a progress, that is so considerable, that in fact, that attracts the attention. You take a superb car without windshield wipers. One day, if it rains, it considerably loses its value. I mean, that we add windshield wipers. We make the corn, if there are no bugs, there is no need of genetic engineering. The day where there are lots of bugs, with our gene, that goes really better...

Then, if there had not been a genetic engineering?

We would continue with insecticides, we would become better in insecticides. It is an option, this is not the solution. This is not a religion, a dogma, that is a choice. It is the best solution. Customers are going to buy products that are the best. Therefore we are brought by the game of the competition to make some better products. We speak a lot of it, because it is a cultural phenomenon. You will buy the genetic engineering, when there will be a specific characteristic of the genetic engineering concerning you. The consumer will buy genetic engineering the day he will say that it is a healthier food. The problem is that what is good for the agriculturist, is not discerned good by the consumer yet.... He doesn't consider what is good for the agriculturist as being good for him.

How do you see the future of the genetic engineering?

I think that it is only to its beginnings. There is a period of crisis. What would be awful is that one ended up blocking. What happens today is that we read the génome to opened book, we deciphers the man's génome, the cereals' one... Therefore there is a considerable information mass that is arriving, that is going to permit us to land a lot more complicated problems.The genetic engineering itself is only a thing. Everything that counts is the knowledge that will permit to know which proteins are going to be necessary to be changed. Therefore there is a considerable future. Advantages that we will pull will be probably easier to conceive for the consumer.

What do you think about the following sentence: "Do we become this that we eat ?" ?

This is not a scientific question, but philosophical. Because scientifically, we don't become what we eat : if I eat a salad, I won't become a salad ! ! The cannibalism was founded on the idea that we took the virtue of those that we ate.

I think that the feeding is a question of survival, and that it has a considerable social role. Some people say that the celebration of the meal disappears, so through the meal, of a certain way, we are certainly what we eat. The public didn't appropriate the genetic engineering, it didn't say that is us, it said that is "them". There's where the rupture is. So if we are what we eat, this "them" become an outside element. We don't speak about feeding, we speak about a ritual. Because au point de vue de feeding, today, we make so superb things...

 Retour à la page d'accueil du projet YRE à Genève