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“We need more science in politics and less politics in science.”

Unimedios- What is the core of the message that you have brought to Universidad Nacional?

Richard Roberts (RR) - That genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe, good and may help mitigate world hunger which according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) kills 25,000 people a day.

Unimedios- But then, why are there scientists and activists that oppose employing genetic engineering in food production?

RR - Maybe because they do not really understand this is a safe matter. There is not any scientific research showing evidence of a threat in consuming genetically modified foods. On the contrary, there are foods in our current diet that are harmful after having to undergo traditional improvement methods. In this case, why aren’t people requesting banning their consumption? I think we are in ideological positions without scientific research basis.

Unimedios- What to have to say about criticism that using genetic engineering may extend the gap between those who can have access to these procedures and those who cannot?

RR - We cannot think this is a method exclusive to multinational companies. Small local producers may use it, as has been occurring in Africa.

The countries that have been more open to using genetic engineering to improve their agricultural production frequently legislate in situations that do not favor local producers. Again, the issue is not about genetic engineering but of politics.

Unimedios- Isn’t there a parallelism between the group of scientists that support GMOs and those who deny climate change?

RR - In certain sense, yes, there are similarities, as there is opposition to causes of activist groups. However, I only know of a scientist that denies climate change, even with overwhelming evidence. On the contrary, there are more than 120 Nobel Prize laureates that have said that there is no danger of consuming transgenic foods.

Additionally, climate change affects us all. People will die first due to climate change than for eating GMO foods.

Unimedios- Do you and your family eat transgenic foods?  

RR - Of course and I’d do it even more as I love many of these foods that cannot be made without the presence of determined microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts or fungi.

Most milk by-products such as cheese, butter or yogurt are made possible thanks to the presence of bacteria during their processing. This also happens with wine and beer, which also need microorganisms for their elaboration.

Remember that when we talk about GMOs we are referring to a method, not a product. It is an easy and quick manner to make alternations to foodstuffs. But these modifications, as I mentioned before, have always existed.

Let me explain with an example when we see a person with a beautiful dress we don’t ask ourselves if it was handmade or made with a machine. We just look at the beauty of the dress.

Unimedios - Although traditional elaboration could be important. Inclusively, a point of debate around GMOs is one that refers to the impact of them over ancestral seeds and traditional food production methods.

RR - Nobody is against traditional methods. What we are referring to is that if they cannot currently produce enough food for the world population, why not try to improve them, without this meaning they have to disappear?

Let’s think of the case of a bean variety coming from a transgenic seed which may double its yield. Aren’t these types of efforts to improve world food production worth a try, moreover when we have serious hunger issues in certain areas of the world? Developing countries need better agriculture, they need transgenic crops.

We can impact a crop, without damaging the flavor, nutrition or traditions.

Unimedios - You received a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1993, what do you think of how medicine is being taught in the world now?

RR - The world lacks general practitioners, as many professionals opt for specializations to obtain better payment. The idea of a family doctor has been disappearing as in countries where private healthcare systems prevail; companies coerce doctors to spend very little time with their patients.

Unimedios -Both in healthcare and scientific research, how can we achieve better coordination between private and public funding?

RR -The response is to make politicians and leaders make reasonable decisions, not looking for either public or private efforts alone. Both kinds of funding are necessary to improve public healthcare and to support scientific research.

What happens is that many current public decisions are taken exclusively with economic profitability criteria.

Politicians should resort more to the views of science to learn what is safe and good and what is not. They should back basic science and support good science to improve policies.

I repeat this everywhere: “We need more science in politics and less politics in science.”

Unimedios- You have been outspokenly critical about the bad practices of pharmaceutical companies in developing drugs which look more into business than benefitting the people, isn’t it contradictory to support a method which for many is in question, precisely due to the interests which some pharmaceuticals may have?

RR - Some have mistakenly said that transgenics and certain companies are the same thing. We forget that the history of science is full of examples that show us that certain technologies may be used mistakenly. This could lead us, however, to condemn pharmaceuticals and thousands of scientists which are doing very reasonable work to improve crops.

The idea of rejection of transgenics had gotten much attention because we are in times where fear politics take center stage. We should, instead, act based on scientific evidence.

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