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Biodiversity and Social Ecology

Biodiversity and Social Ecology

Genetically modified organisms, both GMOs and TEA, cover an important chapter within biodiversity and the implications linked to the relationship between it and the environment and humanity.
This is a delicate topic and should not be underestimated due to the numerous social, ethical and political, as well as ecological, implications that they entail.
Often the superficial and emotional treatment of the media generates considerable confusion in public opinion, which does not contribute to providing clarity of information. In fact, some information full of contradictory arguments, often irrelevant or even incorrect from a scientific point of view, has the serious consequence of making it unclear what GMOs or TEAs are, how they were produced and what they are used for, what their specific functions are. and how useful (or useless or even harmful) they can be for the human population and for ecosystems.
Before making any reflections or judgements, let’s start from GMOs and their food, biological, social and political implications; it is necessary to be very clear, on a scientific level, what we are talking about and how and why we arrived at the creation of these organisms.
The correct definition of GMO is, as reported on the official website of the Ministry of Health, that of: “Genetically modified organism (GMO) means an organism, other than a human being, in which the genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way different from what happens in nature, with mating and natural genetic recombination.”.
Ultimately, to produce a GMO you need a set of techniques that allow you to insert, remove or modify portions of DNA, the genetic material that is present in all the cells of living organisms. There is therefore no specific reference to plants, with which GMOs are commonly associated, indeed the first successful applications of these techniques were the production of molecules and enzymes from genetically modified bacteria, of fundamental importance for medicine and for food industry.
From these examples it could be deduced that the difficulties relating to the public acceptance of GMOs concern only the plant world, in particular food plants, perhaps because they are connected to food and all that this entails on an ecological, social and psychological level.
Among other things, a GMO, or a derivative product thereof, can only be placed on the European market after it has been authorized on the basis of a complex procedure, which includes a risk assessment for human health and the environment.
The reference legislation in the food field for the genetically modified organisms sector is mainly represented by Regulation (EC) no. 1829/2003 and Regulation (EC) no. 1830/2003, both in application since 18 April 2004.
Regulation (EC) no. 1829/2003, relating to GM food and feed, defines, among other things, the authorization procedure for the placing on the market of a GMO or a GM food or feed, establishes the specific requirements regarding labeling and sets the tolerance threshold for the accidental or technically unavoidable presence of GMOs.
By virtue of this community regulation, GM food and feed can only be placed on the market following the issue of an authorization by the European Commission (EC) under the conditions and any restrictions indicated in the authorization itself.
A further evolution of GMOs is linked to the so-called TEAs.
TEAs are nothing more than a series of new techniques that allow targeted modifications of genetic information within cells (identified with the term NGT) and applied first in the field of microbiology, then in that of human health, domestic animals and plant. With NGT it is possible to modify even a single specific nucleotide (or nitrogenous base) of the many millions or billions that make up the DNA double helix. The changes produced are of the exact same type as spontaneous mutations.
The term TEA was coined in Italy by the Italian Society of Agricultural Genetics (SIGA) to identify what in the rest of the world are called “new breeding techniques” or “new genomic techniques” and have as their spearhead the genome editing system CRISPR.
The need to give this acronym arose because the genomic attribute is a close relative of the genetic adjective and risks evoking the ghost of GMOs, a word which in legal language identifies a category of products heavily discriminated against on a regulatory level and in common vocabulary it often indicates a threat, a controversy, a taboo.
In fact, changing the name of things does not change their substance, but we try to focus attention on an aspect that is considered particularly significant. By saying “new genomic techniques” we emphasize the fact that the plants produced in this way are the result of a technological revolution, the same one that is producing notable innovations in medicine in terms of advanced therapies.
The reference instead to “assisted evolution techniques”, evokes the process of natural evolution, therefore underlines the similarity between the mutations that appear spontaneously every day in the DNA of all living organisms and the mutations targeted and induced with new biotechnologies.
The term TEA is not currently used in the scientific literature. The first time that the TEAs entered into an act with legal value was with the publication in the GURI of the text of the decree-law of 14 April 2023, n. 39 coordinated with the conversion law of 13 June 2023, n. 68 containing: “Urgent provisions to combat water scarcity and to strengthen and adapt water infrastructure.” This decree law of the Italian State, in art. 9 bis, dictated the urgent provisions on agricultural genetics.
In this act, the term TEA identified the plants produced with genome editing and cisgenesis.
In detail, the word editing appeared for the first time in 2005 on the cover of “Nature” regarding an experiment performed in vitro on human cells with the so-called “zinc fingers” (ZFN) technique, thanks to a programmable enzyme that it can be considered the older (and less fortunate) brother of CRISPR. Saying editing rather than genetic engineering serves to emphasize a fundamental difference: DNA can be modified in situ, without adding foreign genetic material, with a process similar to the editorial revision of a computer-written text. Another editing technique, called TALEN, was invented in 2009. In the history of new genomic techniques, the real watershed came in 2012 with the invention of CRISPR, an editing system so versatile that it deserved the Nobel Prize for Chemistry but with a name which is an acronym incomprehensible to most and which can be translated as “short palindromic repeats grouped and regularly interspaced”, as some sequences made in this way represented the first clue that led to the discovery in bacteria of the phenomenon which then inspired the invention of the biotech tool of the same name.
The term cisgenesis is instead a variation of the word transgenesis, because in both cases classic genetic engineering is used, not editing. In transgenic organisms, a gene from an evolutionarily distant organism is present, while in cisgenic organisms, a gene originating from a sexually compatible species has been transferred.
Beyond all the possible applications in the agricultural field, the question that is asked is whether TEA/NGT are GMOs? According to common sense, the answer could be no, because the word GMO usually refers to transgenic organisms such as corn borer-resistant Bt corn and herbicide-resistant RR soybeans. For EU and Italian laws, however, the answer is yes, at least for now. This was reiterated by a 2018 European Court ruling, the same one that set in motion the regulatory review process in Brussels.
Obviously, from the moment this contribution is drafted, the regulatory evolution on the subject will undergo further evolutions.
Genome editing is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified, or replaced from the genome of the living organism. Unlike early genetic engineering techniques that randomly inserted genetic material into a host genome, genome editing works at specific sites.
However, to understand the complexity of this matter, which is often presented only from a scientific point of view and its technological implications, we remember that farmers have altered the genes of plants for years to develop new and better varieties, but recent technological progress they made it possible to edit an organism’s genome faster, more accurately and, according to supporters of this technology, more cheaply.
However, the issue must be addressed not only in terms of analysis of the technological tools necessary to carry out the “rewriting” of DNA but it is also appropriate to analyze the resulting ethical, ecological and social aspects.
To clarify this delicate topic, let us remember that agriculture exists as an activity closely related to human activities, to the culture generated by this experience, to the links between it and the evolution of knowledge, to the mutuality between the evolution of agricultural systems and social. A further level of the coevolutionary process.
Agriculture is the matrix of that social ecology which is the basis of civilizations, so much so that in 1996 the term Food Sovereignty was coined by the members of Via Campesina, subsequently adopted by various international organisations, including the World Bank and the Nations United.
Among other things, in 2007, the Nyéléni Declaration provided a definition that was adopted by eighty countries; in 2011 it was further refined by the European states. As of 2020, at least seven countries have integrated food sovereignty into their constitutions and legislation; Furthermore, since 2022, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture has taken the name: Ministry of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty and Forests.
Let us remember that food sovereignty is a concept that refers to the right of peoples and communities to have full control over their own food system. This is an alternative and contrasting vision with the dominant approach of industrial agriculture and global food trade.
Well, as mentioned, beyond the strictly scientific and therefore technological aspects, the possibility of moving genetic interaction from the knowledge of rural social systems to the holders of very expensive and complex technologies creates a problem that goes far beyond the simple aspect, exquisitely scientific and technological: whether or not it is correct to manipulate DNA unnaturally, a question that also needs to be analyzed in its entirety.
The use of technologies owned by financial and commercial groups has clear repercussions on farmers’ social organisations. This process interferes with the processes of knowledge, knowledge transfer and practical applications of rural societies, risking abruptly interrupting an anthropological path that has been underway, in all parts of the world, for at least 10,000 years. That path which has allowed, with gradualness and consequent in-depth analysis, the development and creation of an animal and plant wealth of unlikely breeds and varieties.
That genetic variability that has allowed production and production arrangements to be adapted to individual ecosystems and, often, to unique microecosystems and microclimates.
That process that generated agricultural knowledge, from which cultures, arts, civilizations, etc. were derived; another level of biodiversity, that of rural civilisations, which represent the true social wealth and stability of entire territories of our planet.
This wealth has also allowed the acquisition and sharing of knowledge, its relationships with the surrounding ecosystem and the creation of shared cultures and experiences.
We can say that the center of this complex process was sharing; sharing of knowledge, seeds, plants, animals, breeds, varieties, etc.
The information contained in DNA (observed in its macroscopic aspects) has been assimilated, understood, shared and this sharing has generated knowledge and traditions and, ultimately, sharing of processes.
Genome editing, like any other form of intervention disconnected from these mechanisms, can implement processes detached from this social ecology, activating and promoting monopolistic systems in the hands of a few financially strong and dominant entities in the social and anthropological science of the world.
Let us remember, in this regard, that plants, animals and any living being are never isolated units in the ecosystem; their life is the result of multiple interactions (a macroscopic entanglement) and exchanges of information with equally multiple organisms.
A resistance function towards a plant disease, or towards a state of stress, is the result of countless exchanges of information, and these processes are at the basis of the gradual birth of species, varieties and breeds.
To put it simply, it is the DNA that, in its entirety, interacts with each other and not simple portions that give unambiguous, simplistic and reductionist answers.
The great richness of Italian and global agricultural biodiversity is only the fruit of a slow and gradual genetic rearrangement, the consequence of very long periods of adaptation and thermodynamic feedback of natural and agricultural ecosystems.
All this has generated, in a correlated way, civilizations, cultures, knowledge, experiences and human values.
For this reason the topic of DNA editing, what the mechanisms and technologies are, cannot be dismissed only from a scientific point of view; the implications are preordained sociological, even before ecological.
It is a question of evaluating how these technologies can impact the sociology and dynamics of rural systems and their links with urban centres; how they can monopolize knowledge, how much they can influence peasant knowledge and what repercussions they can have not only on rural systems but also on the entire human civilization.
Furthermore, one of the main mechanisms that drives the evolution of ecosystems is natural selection, which is the process through which organisms best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, transmitting their adaptive traits to the next generation.
In addition to natural selection, other mechanisms that influence the evolution of ecosystems include genetic drift, migration and mutation. Genetic drift occurs when allele frequencies vary randomly in populations over time, especially in small populations. Migration, on the other hand, leads to the introgression of new genes into a population through the movement of individuals from one area to another. Mutation is the random process through which new genetic variants (mutations) form in the DNA of organisms.
It is clear that ecosystems are made up of a complex network of interactions between living organisms and their physical environment. The evolution of ecosystems can also be influenced by abiotic factors, such as climate change, resource availability and the geology of the area. These factors can affect the survival and reproduction capacity of organisms, creating selective pressures that shape the evolution of the ecosystem over time.
Ecosystems are, therefore, multiplicity of DNA constantly interacting and relating, through which the information exchanged generates complex thermodynamic systems (dissipative systems).
In summary, the evolution of ecosystems is driven by a combination of natural selection, genetic drift, migration, mutation and complex interactions between organisms and the environment. These mechanisms work together to shape the adaptation and diversity of organisms within ecosystems over time.
This complex evolutionary process, in the rural field, includes the human presence to such an extent that it can be stated that without complex social systems there can be no agricultural complexity.
Today, unfortunately, we are all paying for the simplification of cultivation systems, boasted with the green revolution of the 1960s as the progress necessary to feed the world.
After just over half a century, some evaluations are starting to be made relating to some factors, such as:
– increase in poverty of some populations;
– drying up of agricultural soils;
– drastic reduction in natural and agricultural biodiversity;
– exponential increase in toxic residues in foods;
– climate change and environmental disasters.
All within a period which, in the span of human history, is like an infinitesimal fraction in a person’s life.
When we therefore analyze the application of new technologies, we must include, for completeness of reasoning, aspects that are not exclusively scientific and technological (among other things often observed in an isolated manner) but above all ethical principles that must be placed in synchrony with the laws and codes of nature. Recent history is teaching us that, whenever we disavow nature, the consequences are never positive, causing reduction and degradation to the very conditions of life.
Furthermore, at the state of the art, there is a lack of sufficient scientific research and, therefore, also the development of meta-analyses that allow a quantitative technical-statistical evaluation that allows the data of multiple studies conducted on the topic to be combined, giving a sufficiently reliable picture.

Guido Bissanti

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