New transgenics, more risks

New transgenics, more risks

A new generation of GMOs reaches the fields and tables. It is not just about crops, but also about animals designed through genetic manipulation. Without independent studies to guarantee its safety, companies and governments advertise the “security”Of the products. Scientific responsibility.

Cut and paste genes. And thus achieve laboratory cultures (or animals) tailored to the client. From soy resistant to more pesticides to potatoes that do not rust (“blacken”), Supposedly stronger horses and cows with more kilos. And they even promise designer babies, immune to disease. These are the promises of a new technique, called Crips / Cas9, which biotech companies advertise as a magic bullet for “produce more”And improve breeds. The governments (with Argentina and Brazil at the helm) promote the business proposal and even evade the regulations that transgenics have.

Biotechnology companies, scientists and officials do not present studies on how this technology, and food and laboratory animals, impact on health and the environment.

Businessman speech

Sooner or later it will be possible to modify the species“, Headlined the newspaper La Nación in Argentina. "Gene editing fights infection”, Highlighted the Clarín newspaper. The news portal Infobae celebrated: “The Argentine cow of the future. They manage to improve the DNA of animals in a single generation”.

Genes are molecular units of living beings that, in their interaction with the environment, affect the characteristics of organisms (they are also units that are inherited, passed from parents to children).

Newspaper articles uncritically spread the gene modification technique called "genetic (or gene) editing”. It consists of a set of methods and technologies that allow modifications to the genome without requiring the introduction of a foreign gene. With this new technology genes can be eliminated, inverted, modified their sequence, silenced or increased expression. Nahuel Pallitto and Guillermo Folguera, researchers from the UBA and Conicet, explain that the possibilities of manipulation, in principle, seem to be greater than those traditionally offered by transgenesis.

The most publicized technique of gene editing is called Crispr (“Clustered and regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", for its acronym in English). A very simple way to explain what it is about: it is a kind of GPS with a pair of scissors. Crispr is a GPS that leads to a specific part of the genome, and Cas9 are the scissors that cut those genes. They advertise it as a more precise, cheap and efficient way than previous transgenics, which would allow to solve hunger, diseases and even “designHuman beings who will resist disease. It has a great media propaganda maneuver to avoid going through any biosecurity law and, at the same time, hide the criticism or doubts that the technology implies.

With genetic editing, companies can produce any type of genetically modified organisms, with resistance to various and questionable agro-toxins.


Argentina was the first country in Latin America to approve GM soy. It was in March 1996 and in record time, 81 days. It did so based on studies by the Monsanto company, without taking into account the social, environmental or health impacts. It meant a drastic change in the Argentine agricultural model. It was a decision made by a handful of officials (headed by the Secretary of Agriculture and current Chancellor, Felipe Solá), without any type of public information or citizen participation.

Similarly, Argentina made progress in regulating gene editing. It was not a law discussed in the National Congress and, as with soy, there was no information to the public. It is a simple ministerial resolution (173/15), dated May 12, 2015, signed by the Secretary of Agriculture, Gabriel Delgado. In a tendentious interpretation, it defines that genetic editing is within the “New Improvement Techniques (NBT)”And it is not transgenic. Therefore, it considers that no study is necessary on possible impacts on the environment or the health of the population.

Argentina is the first country in the world to have regulation for gene editing”, Martín Lema, head of the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Agriculture, tends to boast. Motto, which has papers “scientists”Signed together with Bayer / Monsanto and Syngenta, he is a political chameleon, he passes from one color to another without blushing: he was an official of Kirchnerism, after Macrism and now he responds to Alberto Fernández. He has always been faithful to transgenic companies: he defends the interests of agribusiness, denies any evidence about the toxic effects of agrochemicals and never listens to the victims of the model.

Brazil follows the same path as Argentina. In 2018, through a controversial normative resolution (RN 16) of the CTNbio (National Biosafety Technical Commission), it gave the green light for the production of seeds and insects produced through genetic editing, without considering them transgenic.

In 2018, the Conference of the Parties (COP14) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was held in Egypt, where global biotechnology is regulated. Argentina was the main promoter for gene editing. Martín Lema, director of Biotechnology of Argentina, was the fundamental spokesperson to dissociate gene editing from transgenics and mockingly rejected the application of indigenous rights (proposed by Bolivia). He denied that the right to free, prior and informed consultation, in force in international regulations, is applied. He also reiterated on various occasions that Argentina had “regulated”Gene editing since 2015 and stated that no extra studies were necessary.

The Argentine government highlighted the speed in the approval of seeds through genetic editing because, it argues, you should not go through the tests and procedures that transgenics go through. The questioned technique crosses and unifies governments: it began with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, continued with Mauricio Macri and continues with Alberto Fernández.

In November 2018, the Argentine government presented to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a “statement on precision biotechnologies applied to the sector”. According to the official statement “the importance of gene editing for agribusiness is expressed and seeks its acceptance at the international level”.

Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher at the ETC Group, explains that large companies have aggressively installed that the products of these technologies are not considered as transgenic, because in some cases the final product does not necessarily contain foreign genetic material, even if its genome has been manipulated. "This absurd attempt by the biotech industry and agribusiness had a significant setback when in 2018 the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the products of the new biotechnologies are genetically modified organisms and must follow biosafety regulations. Paradoxically, the governments of Brazil and Argentina, acting as good lackeys of the transnational agribusiness companies, issued biosafety regulations on gene editing that are even more lax than the existing regulations on transgenics” [1].


Elizabeth Bravo, doctor in ecology of microorganisms and member of the Network for a Latin America Free of Transgenics (Rallt), explains that these new molecular technologies alter the structure and functions of the living molecule, the way in which they relate to their environment immediate environment, disrupt biological and evolutionary cycles. "So far it is not technically possible to make a single isolated change to the genome using Crispr and it is totally accurate and safe. Crispr ends up generating modifications other than the desired ones on multiple occasions, incorporating more 'genetic noise, more alterations’”.

Bravo stated that the majority of gene functions are regulated by highly complex biochemical networks that depend on a large number of factors that condition them, such as the presence of other genes and their variants, environmental conditions, the age of the organism and even the random. He questions that, ignoring these facts, geneticists and molecular biologists have created artificial experimental systems in which sources of environmental or other variation are minimized.

Pallitto and Folguera, members of the Biology Philosophy Group of the UBA, confront against the business and media discourse: “It is not true that gene editing is totally controlled or that it is entirely predictable”. While they acknowledge that the Crispr / Cas9 tool presents a kind of “label"Molecular that indicates where in the genome the complex that introduces the changes should go, these are technologies that are usually accompanied by"unpredictable effects, such as modifications elsewhere in the genome or unforeseen changes in the region of interest”.

They question whether matters of general interest are left in the hands of science and business. It seems unusual to them that, as with pesticides, those affected are asked to demonstrate the damage caused by GMOs, when in fact it must be the technology developers themselves who should verify that their products cause us harm. They emphasize that gene editing has not been confirmed to be harmless to health or the environment.

When there are studies, they usually correspond to investigations that are limited to investigating the so-called lower levels of organization. Thus, what can happen at the molecular or cellular level is studied, excluding from the analysis approximations that contemplate what could happen at the population and ecosystem levels”, They alert.

Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher at the ETC Group (Erosion, Technology and Concentration Action Group), cites the English organization GM Watch [2], which reports 2019 studies in which it confirms that Crispr causes genomic derangements in plants, animals and cells human. Specifies that in the case of food or forages they can cause allergies and other forms of toxicity.

Leonardo Melgarejo is a doctor in production engineering and a founding member of the Movimiento Ciencia Ciudadana (Brazil). It states that gene editing produces "unpredictable changes" in the genome. And it specifies that in most cases of genetic editing application it is carried out with microorganisms, without risk assessment on a larger scale, with the possibility of contamination. Melgarejo, who participated critically in the CTNbio of Brazil, leaves a question that the transgenic industry has not yet answered: “How to prevent the flow of live microorganisms between countries (with their consequent contamination)?”.


The promotion of new technologies has among its objectives, in addition to greater profitability, to respond to a problem self-generated by agribusiness: the resistance of weeds to pesticides (such as glyphosate), which are no longer effective in controlling unwanted plants.

Elizabeth Bravo points out that genetic editing is part of a combo of technologies that seeks to ensure the increase in the use of pesticides and consolidate the role of agribusiness in agrifood production. Pallito and Folguera summary: “GMOs already promised us a food paradise. We are already seeing the consequences of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms –transgenic–) in terms of contamination, deterioration of the quality of the land, loss of food sovereignty and diversity of crops. The list is endless. Gene editing technologies seek to take their place”.

GMOs on the table

The United States has already approved a dozen crops through genetic editing: soybeans, corn, rice, potatoes, alfalfa, tobacco and tomatoes, among others.

On January 30, 2020, the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) celebrated in a statement: “INTA plants the first potatoes that do not rust”. They used Crispr / Cas9 to avoid the “enzymatic browning”, Which translated into everyday life is to avoid blackening after peeling them.

They did not release studies on possible health effects.

INTA, the largest official Argentine field dedicated to agriculture, highlights the potato by genetic editing as an achievement. And they advance in field trials.

Elizabeth Bravo, from Ecuador, does not leave her astonishment: “Is this experiment so that the potato does not turn black after peeling? What is that needed for?”.

On the other hand, the Bioheuris company announced its gene editing work in soybeans, sorghum and wheat.

Carlos Pérez, director of the company, recognized what the search is: “Glyphosate stopped being completely effective, so it is necessary to introduce other resistances; that's the goal ”[3]. Pérez was manager of the Bioceres company (which developed the first transgenic wheat) and of the multinational Bayer / Monsanto. Its partners, Lucas Lieber and Hugo Permingeat, are part of the Conabia (National Biotechnology Commission), the body responsible for the approval of transgenics in the country.

In Brazil, after the disputed resolution RN16, the registration of a yeast for the production of bioethanol by the company Globalyeast was approved.

Transgenic animals

Cloned horses with edited genes, another feat by Argentine scientists”, Celebrated the press release of the Ministry of Agriculture, on January 9, 2018.

The team of scientists used the so-called 'precision genetic progress' to identify sequences of genes that exist naturally in horses that code for certain characteristics, but instead of acquiring them in their offspring through conventional crossing, these sequences are incorporated in the laboratory by gene editing. The technique that allowed making these edits in the DNA of the animals is Cispr-Cas9 ", explained the Kheiron Biotech company, responsible for the experiment. And claimed to be "the first company in the world to achieve genetically edited equine embryos”.

The Ministry stressed that they would improve the potential and dexterity of polo horses. According to the company, genetic modification achieves "improvements related to muscle development, endurance and speed in horses”. They highlight the supposed importance of being a company "totally national”And highlights that in 2017 they had a subsidy of two million pesos from the Government (through the National Agency for Scientific Promotion).

Daniel Sammartino, director of the company, announced that “the next challenge"Is to expand genetic editing and cloning to cattle and pigs to improve"health, nutrition and well-being”.

In June 2019, Kheiron Biotech announced that it advanced in cattle developed using Crispr / Cas9, under the promise of “generate 20 percent more meat" [4]. They pointed out that in 2020 they would have the first litter of calves obtained via genetic editing.

They did not disclose what studies are being carried out regarding the safety of the animal and its possible crossbreeding with other cattle. But they still assured: "A gene-edited animal in Kheiron Biotech is identical to one that could be obtained naturally through conventional crossbreeding." [5]. And they repeat the business advertisement about Crispr / Cas9: “It is an innovative technology that allows precise gene editing by safely causing small adjustments in the genome of animals”.

INTA is also experimenting with gene editing in cattle [6]. It promises to generate “animals that produce milk of better nutritional quality”.

On the other side of the gene editing promoters, the Network for a GMO-Free Latin America (Rallt) released in June 2018 a document from the Independent Science News organization: “Geneticists and molecular biologists have constructed circular arguments to favor a naive and deterministic view of gene function. This paradigm usually downplays the enormous complexities through which information circulates between organisms and their genomes. This has created a huge bias in public understanding about genes and DNA.”.

He remarks that the biggest problem arises when this narrow conceptualization of genetics is applied to the real world, outside of the laboratory: “In the case of the 'super-muscular' pigs reported by the scientific journal Nature, strength is not their only function. They must also have more skin to cover their bodies and stronger bones to support them. They also have difficulties giving birth; and if these pigs are ever released into the wild it is to be assumed that they would have to eat more. Thus, this supposedly simple genetic change can have broad effects on the organism throughout its life cycle.”.

The Nature article also reveals that 33 percent of the pigs died prematurely, and only one animal was considered healthy at the time the authors of this research were interviewed. What a precise technique!”, Ironizes the organization.

Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher at the ETC Group, recalled that the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Kui Li, deleted a gene to achieve pigs with less fat. The meat of the hatchlings is 12 percent leaner. But one in five had an extra vertebra in the thorax. "It is a phenomenon that scientists cannot explain. They ensure, however, that the meat of these manipulated pigs has the same nutritional content”Asks Ribeiro.

Role of science

The scientists who promote gene editing say over and over again that it is a technique "precise" Y "safe”. They do not exhibit research that accounts for either of those two promises. And, at the same time, they are neither independent nor objective voices, since they have economic interests in the development of that technology.

Would a doctor, hired by a tobacco company, be believed in saying that cigarettes are harmless? How true would a scientist, hired by oil companies, question global warming?

Nahuel Pallitto and Guillermo Folguera reflect systematically on the role of academia in social and political processes. They question the overvaluation of scientific discourse, many times presented as objective and true. "Science and technology are the producers of gene editing tools. However, they are both those that validate them and those that legitimize them. In the case of transgenics, the authorized voices to speak about their uses and consequences are usually those of the same technicians who develop and evaluate them. With Crispr / Cas9 the exact same thing happens. In this way, a closed generation / validation structure is generated that only contemplates the voice of the scientists themselves in those specific fields. Processes of exclusion of most of the scientific community and, of course, also of the non-scientific community”, They question.

He "precautionary principle”Is a legal aspect in force in various national regulations (Law 25.675, in Argentina). It indicates that given the possibility of environmental damage it is necessary to take protective measures. Even the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an unpublished resolution in 2018, where it urged the States to “act according to the precautionary principle against possible serious or irreversible damage to the environment, which affects the rights to life and personal integrity, even in the absence of scientific certainty”[7]. He also called to guarantee access to information, demanded that the right to public participation in decision-making that can affect the environment be fulfilled.

None of this is taken into account when approving products made under genetic editing.

In humans

In November 2018, the Chinese geneticist He Jiankui announced that he had created the first genetically modified babies, using the Crispr / Cas9 gene editing technique and with the aim of “give girls the natural ability to resist possible future HIV infection”.

He won the (deserved) majority repudiation of scientists from around the world. They reproached him for having crossed a limit: experimenting with humans.

It is curious that these same scientists justify the experimentation and release of transgenics, pesticides and fruits, vegetables and laboratory animals, without considering the social, environmental and health impacts.

A year later, December 2019, the Chinese Justice sentenced He Jiankui to three years in prison and to pay a fine of three million yuan ($ 430,000) for developing "illegally gene editing human embryos for reproductive purposes”.

Who's behind?

Elizabeth Bravo finds many similarities with the time when GMOs began to be investigated. First, it was said that it was an easy, inexpensive technique that could be done at any university. There were small companies that made investments, often with the support of large multinationals. And if it found something really promising, the big company bought the small one. "This happened, for example, with the company that had the patent for transgenic soybeans and which was bought by Monsanto. It is possible that something similar is happening now. There are many small companies working on these technologies, and sometimes they have investment from the big ones", Explain.

Syngenta, Bayer-Monsanto and Corteva have been working on gene editing for years. They advertise it on their corporate sites and with their allied journalists. Always under the same promise as with transgenics: greater production to alleviate world hunger.

The same story from thirty years ago, but now under the name of "gene editing”.

This article is part of the Atlas of Transgenic Agribusiness in the Southern Cone project carried out with the support of Misereor.


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