Interview of Beatrice Pellegrini

Retranscription of the interview (selection)

26 January 1999, local of  LíHebdo in Geneva.

Young Reporters : Could you prsent yourselves, please ?
Béatrice Pellegrini : My name is Beatrice Pellegrini. I have been a scientific journalist at LíHebdo for a year and a half . . . I first was a searcher for about ten years in the setting of my doctorate thesis. Then, later, as a searcher, I studied genetics of the human populations and the medical genetics.

Searchers manipulate the plants and animals genses and we, the consumers, find these genes in our food. It sends us back to the title of our project « When we eat . . . » what do you thing of this sentence ?
(laughs) It is absolutely impossible. The problem isnít in the genes : we eat hundred millions of genes with every meal and we degrade them. I ask myself a lot of questions, but not this one.

Do you think it is one of the consumersís fears (the consumer who is not necesseraly informed on the subject) ?
Of course. I answered to you as a scientist, but it is necessary to explain to people, one one hand, because most people ignore they eat genes. Everything we eat (vegetables, animals, seeds, everything that one day lived) contains DNA. Effectively, it is important to explain that we eat DNA. On the other hand, adding a gene is not the problem, but it is the product of the gene, case by case, which is a problem, depending on the product we synthetised. The DNA itself doesínt have any effect on the organism. This is the question we aks ourselves, when we donít have a genetic knowledge . . .

Now we are going to speak of the laws that regulate genetic engineering. In Switzelrand, we proceed to analyses of the modified products with genetic manipulations. But we can consider some illegal acts, offenses as in all other fieds : for example a non-declared GMO field, or  modified produts not well labelled. Do you think we can trust the control systems. Are all the precautions taken ?
It is necessary to distinguish the two cases youmentioned. About the take in field, I believe that in Switzerland, we are well protected. That we do not have a big risk, thanks to very active associations like Grennpeace, W.W.F.. The range of authorizations is very large and the firm or the searcher who would do it in a hidden manner would be silly. It would be a risk for his career and even for the product, In my opinion, Switzerland being a very small countrx where everybody controls everybody, the risk is very small.
On the other hand, concerning the risk of omitting the right labelling, the system is not that reliable. We already had several problems. Depending on the type of GMO we are looking for
Sometimes it canít be detected by the current methods. Some processes, for example the long time cooking, the hydrolisis (chemical decomposition by fixing of water) cuts the DNA like in our stomach, but before the foods is ingested, therefore, we canít detect the added gene anymore and then canít  make the difference between a modified and non modified food.

Yet, a conselor of Geneva State, (Mr. Guy-Olivier Segond) to whom we asked the same question, answered that the fraud would be detected three or four days after the take on the market of the new product.
No, this is not true ! The test is done by the cantonal laboratories at a frequency of about two times a year and by canton . . .

Letís remain in the field on the legislation : We noticed that the Swiss laws fairly slow down research (the politician we interviewed told us that the laws are only being written now). We noticed the same in all Europe. Do you think tha the multinational agroalimentary are ready to ignore the consumersí security in order to allow research to go on ?
I donít think they are ready to brave them. In Switzerland, they play the game ! It is clear that there are multinationals who carry well their name. They take advantage of places where legislation . . . I donít have the impression that this is illegal. We could ask ourselves if some countries are not wrong to be so permissive. I donít believe that we can speak of illegality for the firms. In France, they make fieldsítests which are permitted. We could agree with this method or not.

We saw that the laws are being written on a national level, but how can the State and the people
Give the consumers security, knowing that the initiative of June 7 hasínt been voted ?
That is the problem in Switzerland. People canít be protected against their will.You seem to want to protect  « them » (laughs) I believe that the people who brought up the initiative have some responsibility in this. They chossed to mix everything. I think that if they had treated only the plants, the results would have been quite different. It is clear that now it is difficult as you said to protect people against their will.
Ther means are those we usually use in Switzerland : create a debate, discuss about the problem. I believe that when the projects of laws will be submitted, there will be another debate and we will habe to be ready.
There are also a few consumers associations that have their role to play. We also have groups like COOP or MIGROS that can play a big role, when they feel the reluctance og the consumers. Until now they did everything to stop the arrival of the GOM in their shops. They are not opposed to the GOMs, I asked them such a question. They donít hzave any reason to be opposed, but as far as the consumers are reluctant, they will refrain.

Lets remain in the agro-business field. Promoters of the use of genetic engineering, the big societies like Novartis and Monsanto, promise a lot of advantages in their advertisements thenaks to the OGMS, for the consumer and for the farmer . . . and beside this, they promise tosave countries of the third- world from hunger, by improving the crops. Do you think that this is possible and a real advantage (knowing the enormous cost of these operations) or do you think it is merely to hide their unique lucrative goal and mainly for their image ?
I would say that, in theory, it would bring us all the mentioned advantages, we know it and it has been proved by experiments. But, to say that it is the main goal of the agrobusiness . . . their interest is money. By definition, these firms must earn money. They have shareholders behind them. Therefore they use  the sales arguments like the enveronment, as others do. They are not the only one to do it. I also think that the consumer is not dumb. The campaign of Monsanto in France, last year, all this publicity . . . everything has been studied to prove that it was a little too much, in relation to what people are ready to accept . . .

Where are you in fact in this debate ?
Personally of professionally ? (laughs)

Well the two of them separately, it will be interesting to compare !
On a personal point of view, I would feel like not trusting the agroalimentary industry, from a historic point of view, and even more with what happens, for example, in relation with the third-world. On the other hand, from a sccientific point of view, I would say that it is a technology that could bring us a lot of positive things ; but once again, as I told you before, this is not what seems tobe likely to happen first. Therefore, if I had been asked the qestion last year : « Are you for or against OGMS plants ? » I would have said « No » (risks).
And professionally, my believe is like what we tried to do in this supplement : to put in vis-à-vis arguments of both sides, since theoretically it is our profession, but I think that we will never make it in a completely neutral way. But I was happy enough with the supplement, because from both sides, people agreed with what we wrote : then I told myself : « Bizarre », they said « for once, it it not completely shifted, it seems OK . . . (Ö)

The genetic engeneering is hyper-mediatized, especially during the votations. This was the only matter of talk. What do the medias play in this matter ?
If I were a good journalist, I would say that we have to inform (laughs) ; no, I think the debate was particularly unfair. Once again, I believe, everybody has his part of responsibility in it. The fact to have mixed the medical part with the plants forced a lot of people to choose their camp, and then the journalists too had to choose. At the beginning, the argum,ents were on both sides, but at the end, there were some emotional arguments at the medical level : « one cannot close doors that can save lives ». There were people testimonies in rolling chairs . . . Well, this is life, but at the same time, it was a vers amotional point of view that I found a little exagerated . . .

As we say it before, there are laws projects under writing. Do you have confidence in these law projects ?
I believe that it will be necessary to think step by step. It is difficult to say ... I believe that they are nevertheless quite a lot of commissions that were set up, with some relatively competent people. I find that there is a balance between pros and against. What is complicated it to find a legislation that reflects the diversity in these matters. It is as for plants : some wouuld appear to me interesting, I would rather say « why not, in very controlled conditions, etc. » whereas, in fact, a plant with a gene of antibiotic in it is silly, we sould not allow it. We should think about it step by step. Anyway, it will be difficult . . .

Well, everything relies on politicians, national counselors, and counselors of States who will have to vote these new laws ?
Not only . . . there are commissions with specialists who are going to elaborate texts, not only politicians, even though there are going to vote these laws.

Are they able to do it ?
Were the Swiss people competent to vote (the initiative) ? That brings us back to the definition of the democracy. We have to be « for » or « against ». We have an extremely direct democracy. I believe we should not close the door to citizens, nor politicians. After all, we did elect them. Otherwise, it gives way to things that we heard during the campaign on behalf of certain cientists : « Ah no, why do we let the people vote thereon, they donít understand anything . . . They will never have sufficient access to science to be able to say if it is right or not ». I believe this is relally wront. We can say that we are on one side or another in politics, but to say « we are well or badly represented we canít. The Swiss people did choose them.

Do you think, by the way, that people who will vote, but who donít especially have an interest in the topic are capable to take a position about genetic engineering ? Do they have a sufficient scientific baggage ?
I think, we pretend to believe that these knowledges were enormous, whereas, in fact, they werenít. We do not need to know what a gene or a protein, etc. is to unterstand what is this new technology. In addition, we saw, during the campaign, that it was rather economic of political arguments, global stakes, more that scientific knowledge. We need a minimum, of course. Those who really want to know, did have the opportunity to learn (laughs). They even had too many opportunities, there was a phenomenon of saturation at the end. Nearly all newspapers made suuplemtns, there were conferences everywhere, open doors in laboratories, . . .
I find interesting to make people vote on that, because those that really want to make themselves an opinion, that forces themselves to acquire knowledges that they would not have have otherwise . . . I am interested in teh diffusion ot the scientific culture and I find it good.

Letís come back to politics. In your opinion, in what way is the genetic engineering a political debate ?
A bit of all these elements which we disucssed until now. The fact that there are sociy stakes. When we choose or not a technology likt this one (medicine) . . . These are society choices, accoridng to the type of research we choose, and by definition it is politics. About the plants, it is the fact that there are huge interests behind the control of seeds, because it is indeed what is played in genetic engineering : Who will detain the monopoly of seeds sales in the next ten years ? Therefore, it is obvious that is it politics. Then the facts that we had the citizens to vote it not banal, it is politics (patents, world exchanges, intellectual property) . . . All of this, for me, is politics.

Now a question about problems of ethics generated ba the genetic enginering. Do you think that these problems will go on or disappear in our daily life ?
It is very difficult to say . . . It depends on so many factors, economics, ... It is difficult to know what will be our society in five years. The only mark is historic (grafts of organs) . . . I believe that we are moving more and more towards a society in which the quality of life will be very important, but will we have enough « economic comfort » to be able to offer it to ourselves ? Biology, etc. is expensive . . .

Now, generally how do you see the future of genetic engineering (research especially) ?
In the next ten years, it will develop very fast. All the indicators show that everybody speeds along in this field, the private as much as the public. But, all the same, we can hear litle voices (of opposition) rise, left and right, on a scientific leve. There are people who try to recall it : at the human beeing level, it is not sufficient to sequence its genetical inheritance to understand how it works. I believe that genetic engineering indeed is the next centuryís technology . . .

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