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Interview with PERE PUIGDOMéNECH

Research Professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

«Agriculture should aim to produce enough food for everyone; something we have not yet achieved»

In this interview, Pere Puigdomènech argues that in order to improve the plants and animals we rely on for food we need either to use existing diversity or create diversity artificially.

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Applying new technologies is fundamental in any area of research. To what extent can agricultural research obtain improved yields and higher quality by applying new molecular technologies?
First of all, molecular technologies are making it possible to understand the genetics and physiology of plants. For example, they can tell us how they grow and form their fruits, how they adapt to changes in the environment, or how they defend themselves from HIGHLIGHTSThe European Group on Ethics in Science and New TechnologiesProfile: Pere Puigdomènech
disease and animals. Secondly, these technologies are allowing us to develop methods which speed up the process of obtaining plants that are better suited to our needs. The features of greatest interest to farmers are yield, disease resistance and the quality of the produce. Current research in the sciences underpinning both arable and stock farming would be inconceivable without the tools offered by molecular genetics.

There is speculation that in the not-too-distant future average life expectancy will be over 100 years. The popu-lation will include a greater proportion of elderly people, who will be healthier and better-informed, and there will obviously be a lot of changes, including changes in nutritional habits and food consumption. Will it be necessary to direct food production towards the new needs of specific population groups?
Food demand will probably have certain specific characteristics in the future. Agriculture must aim to produce sufficient food for everyone, something we have not yet managed to do, and that the food we produce is safe and contributes to healthy living. We are increasingly aware that food is an essential factor for our health and that each person reacts differently to what they eat. As a result, we are increasingly adapting our nutrition to our personal needs. In the future we will have a much better idea of the type of nutrition that is compatible with our genetic make-up, and this knowledge will help us lead healthier lives. Indeed, in many countries it is already gradually being accepted that research into food production must be included within the sphere of biomedical research. There is no point in having better drugs if we eat the wrong foods.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the loss of biodiversity will have a significant impact on humanity’s ability to feed itself in the future, and some of the world’s poorest people will be the most severely affected. To this is added effect of climate change and growing food insecurity, which are big challenges for the world’s agricultural systems. How can we tackle these issues?
The challenges we are going to have to face in the years ahead will not be easy to resolve. The population of our planet has reached 7 billion and it is expected to peak at 9 billion around 2050. We will have to try to feed everyone, which is something we have not so far managed to achieve. At the same time, with economic growth we become more demanding Molecular techniques enable us to identify and classify varieties so we can determine which are the most diverse and valuableabout what we eat (for example, in the countries of East Asia meat consumption is increasing significantly), and agriculture obviously also has a powerful impact on the environment. In particular, we do not want to increase the amount of land turned over to farming, and we want to decrease agricultural inputs and the pollution that certain practices cause. If we add in climate change, which could have a considerable effect on agricultural output, we obviously cannot remain idle.

We have to continue our research efforts to obtain plant varieties and animal breeds that are better adapted to our needs and to ensure that they are used in farming in the most rational way possible. In order to improve the plants and animals we rely on for food we need to make use of existing diversity or create diversity artificially. In any event, conserving the biodiversity of cultivated species is absolutely essential, although we must be sure that what we are conserving it is worthwhile, as seed banks can be very expensive. In this regard, molecular techniques enable us to identify and classify varieties so we can determine which are the most diverse and valuable.

With nutrigenomics we are beginning to glimpse the possibility of personalised à la carte foods modified to match the taste, health needs and even religious preferences of individual consumers. Is it possible that in the near term genetically modified plants will be developed with vaccines or other drugs in them, such is the case of golden rice which has been modified to supply vitamin A?

As I said, we are headed towards a model of nutrition adapted to our individual needs. Nutrigenomics is the study of the genetic basis of our reaction to nutrients and is going to be a wonderful aid to preventing disease and en-abling people to lead healthy lives in the future. However, it is nonetheless true that there are relatively few outputs of this research in widespread use. Human genomics is giving us the information we need and plant and animal genomics is giving us the tools to allow agriculture to respond to this demand. The genetic modification of plants is one of the tools we can use to speed up this process, although due to the cost of the regulations on plants of this kind, it is not likely that varieties aimed at specific groups will appear in the short term.

The European Food Safety Authority’s scientific panel has not proven there to be any risks from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). What are GMOs’ benefits and dangers?
Work done at the behest of authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or the Comisión Nacional de Bioseguridad en España (Spanish National Biosafety Commission) is aimed at analysing possible risks from these plants and avoiding any potential impacts they may have on human or animal health or on the environment. If there are benefits, these must be recognised by farmers, who have to first decide whether to plant them. The reality is that there are increasing numbers of farmers, large and small, in both developed and developing countries, who are using GMOs. The benefits are improved yields, smaller losses and easier cultivation. This will ultimately have an impact on food production.

In scientific terms, what stage are we at in relation to the genetic modification of crop plants? Can any plant whatsoever be modified genetically?
Right now we could say that, with some exceptions, it is a priori possible to modify any plant species using any gene we have been able to isolate in the laboratory. Improvements in modification techniques are being developed so as to make the process more effective and better targeted. The biggest constraint today on these plants is the high cost of the regulatory process, particularly in Europe.

Your laboratory has sequenced the melon genome. What does knowing the full genome of a common food crop species contribute?
The genome of a species of itself comprises a valuable collection of data with which to understand the species concerned. It is also a very powerful tool for making improvements, as it makes it possible to identify the genes or groups of genes responsible for some of the characteristics important for its cultivation. A genome is at the same time both a goal and a starting point, as what is really interesting is understanding the variability of the species and how to explain individual characteristics. At the same time, it has en-abled us to familiarise ourselves with the genomic and bio informatics tools which will be an essential part of basic research and its applications from now on.

It is predicted that the world’s population will reach 9 billion around the year 2050. Can biotechnology solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition?
We have some very big challenges ahead of us. We have already seen how a bad harvest in a key producer country can have an immediate knock-on effect on the price of staple foods. And as soon as prices rise the first people to be affected are those with the least purchasing power. We have to take determined action to find solutions on any front we can. We must also take nutritional needs into account at the same time and bear in mind that decisions we take now must not prevent future gener-ations from accessing agricultural produce. In this regard, if biotechnology offers solutions, these must be applied in the framework of appropriate regulations so that they can be used to the benefit of all.

Ethical considerations are present in many of the spheres of application of biotechnology and biomedicine. You are a member of the Spanish Biosafety Commission: How does the committee work to evaluate the implications of research and innovation in these areas? What corrective mechanisms does it apply?
The Comisión Nacional de Bioseguridad (National Biosafety Commission) operates within the framework of the European regulations laying down controls on experimentation with, and use of, genetically modified organisms. The commission brings together representatives of Central government, regional governments and scientists. The commission has approved and monitored field trials in Spain, and has worked with the European authorities on the approval of tested plant varieties. It also monitors authorised crops closely. The reality is that millions of tonnes of grain and derivatives of species such as soya beans and maize have been imported into the country. Around 75,000 hectares of maize with a cornborer resistance gene have been grown without significant conflicts or negative impacts. I think that says a lot about the work done so far.

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) is an independent, pluralist and multidisciplinary body set up by the European Commission in 1977 to advise it on ethics in science and new technologies in connection with Community legislation or policies.

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies has 15 members (one of whom is Pere Puigdomenèch Rosell) drawn from different countries and belonging to a variety of fields, ranging from biology and genetics, to law, philosophy and theology.

Since it was created the EGE has advised the European executive on various issues, such as human tissue banks, research on human embryos, drug use in sport, stem cells, umbilical cord blood banks, and the ethical implications of the latest technological developments in agriculture.

Profile: Pere Puigdomènech

Has an honours degree in Physics from the University of Barcelona and a PhD in Biology from the Barcelona Autonomous University. He took postdoctoral training at CNRS, (France) Portsmouth Polytechnic (UK) and the Max-Planck-Institut für Molekulare Genetik, Berlin (Germany).

He is currently a research professor at the CSIC and director of the Agrogenomics Research Centre (Centro de Investigación en Agrigenómica, CRAG) run by the CSIC-IRTA-UAB. He is a member of the Academia Europaea and of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). He has sat on the EU-US advisory group on Biotechnology (2000), the European Science Foundation’s expert group on Biology and Society (2000) and was president of the Catalan Biology Society (Sociedad Catalana de Biología) in 2002. He also belongs to the Institute of Catalan Studies (Institut d’Estudis Catalans), the Barcelona Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts (Real Academia de Ciencias y Artes de Barcelona) and the European Commission’s European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. He chairs the CSIC’s Ethics Committee. His research focuses on plant molecular biology, the study of molecular mechanisms involved in plant development and plant genomics.

Published in No. 04

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  • Lychnos. ISSN: 2171-6463 (Spanish print edition),
    2172-0207 (English print edition), 2174-5102 (online edition)
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