Sir Richard John Roberts is an English biochemist and biologist. He was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing. Currently, he is the chief Scientific Officer of the New England Biolabs, Beverly, Massachusetts. Sir Roberts had received a PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1968 from Sheffield University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard before moving to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Currently, he focuses his works on bioinformatics analysis of the genome sequences and studies of bacterial DNA methylation. Before the controversies around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have resurfaced in recent weeks in Ethiopia, The Reporter Magazine had the chance to meet up with the Science Nobel Laureate to talk about issues surrounding GMOs in Africa and the rest of the world. The GMO scientists and supporters on the one hand, the anti-GMO groups on the other end remain in acrimonious relations, one always antagonizing the other. The claims and the counterclaims are mostly expressed beyond the realms of science. Politics and activism gets in the way. But in any way, Sir Roberts argues and points fingers at global activists for failing to find out any wrongs out of the GMOs. He also talks about seed companies, the challenges of climate change, food availability amidst a growing population in the developing world that pushes the need to have GM crops as alternatives. He says gene editing on humans is evolving and denounces some Asian scientists rushing to experiment trials on humans while the rest of the scientific community is looking for the tools to help edit human genes. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter Magazine caught up with Sir Roberts to learn his views around GMOs. Excerpts:
The Reporter Magazine: you won a Nobel Prize for your scientific findings. Tell us more about that?
Sir Richard John Roberts (PhD): Well, in 1977 I with a small group made a discovery that the genes present in hallow organisms were laid out very differently from those in bacteria. Nobody had guessed this ahead of time and came as a big surprise. But it meant that as soon as we are able to sequence DNA from advanced organisms from carryout, then we had to take into account the fact that the genetic information was laid out differently. It allowed the interpretation of DNA sequences in ways that were previously not possible.
The discovery that you could make GMOs; that we could edit organisms and plants in particular makes plants better. Plant breeders had been trying to do this for the last 12,000 years. They had been using old and antiquated methods to do it. We now know, thanks to the GMO methods, we could do it much more quickly and much more precisely. For the people to try and claim that this is dangerous in the absence of any evidence, it is just appalling.
In this age of advancement we are watching genome editing has brought a lot of unimaginable breakthroughs. How is science advancing really, while at the same time being scary?
No, it is not scary. The only thing that is scary is the people like the anti-GMO groups that tried deliberately to scare people about this. Frankly, it is terrible and really awful that the groups wanted to do this. Here is the most promising science that came out in the last 50 years. The discovery that you could make GMOs; that we could edit organisms and plants in particular makes plants better. Plant breeders had been trying to do this for the last 12,000 years. They had been using old and antiquated methods to do it. We now know, thanks to the GMO methods, we could do it much more quickly and much more precisely. For the people to try and claim that this is dangerous in the absence of any evidence, it is just appalling. The thing that is really sad is that when the method was first developed, we couldn’t be absolutely sure that everything was going to be safe. But people worked over the course of the last 30 years and there wasn’t any single incident and problem. Not one. There were some that had been reported in the literature. But those that had been reported in the literature turned out not to be true. The science or something else was not done properly. The papers involved in publishing that report had retracted it. But the anti-GMO group still keep referring to them because they have no evidence. There is no evidence. You know, there are 30 million tons of GM soybeans imported into Europe every year to keep feeding the cattle, the sheep, the goats and so on. Where have we seen problems in these animals? There is not a single problem that has been reported about these animals. That much they have eaten before you are going to decide that these things are safe.
Even from the scientific perspective, you insist and put strict precautionary measures and regulatory systems when farmers and other developers utilize GM crops or GMO products.
Usually, it’s the politicians that do that, not the scientist.
But the scientists as well advise that there should be a regulatory framework on how the GM science works.
Basically, the way the regulations come into play are that the scientists themselves are always optimistic that things will go well, they will feel cautious in the way that they proceed with the experiments. If you think that there might be a problem with something, they need to do it under controlled conditions to make sure that these new organisms you have made do not get out to the general population. But my question is for how long you have to do this for before you decide that everything is okay?
Expected outcomes from GM crops and real results sometimes found to be far from what the scientists have explained. For instance, in the case of Bt Cotton some countries that have championed to plant GM cotton in some part of Africa have not seen the expected results. Farmers ended up losing and they were seeking compensation. What does that give you?
I don’t know enough what has happened in the Bt Cotton in Africa. But in India, Bt Cotton has been an enormous success. I think, initially in Africa, some of the Bt Cotton was an enormous success, too. It may depend where you plant it. You may need different varieties in order to have it become successful. I am not an agricultural scientist. I am a scientist and I apply the logics of science to make decisions. You may have a crop that was originally developed for one country. Sometimes it grows well in another environment and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe the soil is different. The climate conditions might as well be different. That I really don’t know but the agronomy matters how to grow things in the best possible way.
We are in the era of gene editing. You, the scientists are making it happen. But there are nerve-wracking practices that are witnessed when some Chinese experts ambiguously tried to advance against the international consensus. They are experimenting gene editing on humans. That is one of the typical controversies over the genetic sciences.
It was silly. They should not have done it because the methods that they have used we know that are not as precise as one will need in order to genetically edit a human embryo. It just is not that good yet. You could do those same experiments in plants, sometimes it will work and sometimes it doesn’t. But you don’t affect anything. You pick the ones that have worked and you grow those. You don’t grow the ones that did not work. You cannot do that with humans. You don’t get a series of babies and say this one works and that one doesn’t. That is totally unethical. So one shouldn’t get involved in this at the moment until we have better tools. When we have better tools then the kind of experiments one would like to do might be to remove diseases, or may be to change out those genes that are not the best in people. To be honest, I don’t have a big problem with that.
Where are we heading at the moment in terms of crops and agricultural biotechnology? What should we expect in five to ten years?
What will happen, if governments respond appropriately, is that scientists are allowed to make the better plants then many of the crops grown by smallholder farmers in Africa will be better. They will have better nutrition, the yields will be better and may be, the tastes will also be better. I don’t know, but a lot of things are possible. It depends on what the general public would like. Farmers basically grow for themselves, for their families or they will take the produce to the market. They will respond to the market pressure whatever that market happens to be. I think there are many opportunities to improve plants. There has been very little work done by even conventional breeding to try to improve the plants that are typically eaten in Africa. A lot of work has been done for the people who live in the West. They like certain kinds of plants and that is what big agricultural companies are focused on. [Here], they are focused on cassava or many of the plants you like to eat in Africa. Your local scientists can improve the plants in Africa. The nice thing about gene editing is that it is sufficiently easy to do and you don’t need to have a fancy scientist in the west to do it for you. The local scientist can do it perfectly well.
The corporations are there to make money. They are not there just to provide the best seeds to farmers that they are not making money. If you grow a hybrid crop then you harvest the seeds; the next generation is never as good as the first one. The seed companies make the seeds that will work every time and every year. Farmers like to buy those.
Let us talk about seeds and ownerships. Whether it is GM seeds or hybrid, the availability of these seeds is under the controlling hands of big corporations and sometimes politics is involved in order to secure markets.
But you have to understand that big agriculture is big business. The corporations are there to make money. They are not there just to provide the best seeds to farmers that they are not making money. If you grow a hybrid crop then you harvest the seeds; the next generation is never as good as the first one. The seed companies make the seeds that will work every time and every year. Farmers like to buy those. They don’t like to keep them for themselves. But with GM crops, farmers can keep the seeds if they want to because they do continue to breed true and no one will stop a farmer from doing that.
Organic food is just an excuse. It is an advertisement excuse to charge more for food. Food is not any better.
What else can we expect with the advancement of biotechnology that can be applied on humans? Are we going to have ours and our children’s genes edited in the coming five years?
My guess is not in five years. Maybe in 1o or 20 years I think you will be able to do things. But you have to realize that that is going to be an extremely expensive process. Hence, only the elites in the society are going to be able to afford it. It is not going to be something routinely available as part of healthcare for poor people, I believe.
While science is advancing on one end, human beings are facing extreme problems that are ever becoming gigantic. As a scientist, which problems do you see will stick with us for long and which ones will vanish?
As far as I am concerned there are two big issues. One is climate change and that is something if we don’t do something about that we run the risk of wiping out a lot of human existence. The other is GMOs and food. As we get larger in population across the world and as we end up with less land on which we need to grow the food, we need to improve the crops people eat. For me, the GMO approach is the best way to go but in particular it’s the best way for the developing countries. In the west or in Europe we might no longer need that. But if you don’t get it in most of the developing world where population is growing exponentially while food availability is under serious stress, you need to have mechanisms that help you feed the whole growing population. Therefore, you need to have GM crops. If you don’t get it and as the population grows to where there is nothing to eat, people will migrate where they can get food. If Europe thinks it has its own problems now receiving migrants, just wait ten years and see how the problems are developing in Europe with the number of migrants that want to go to Europe. Many countries are not able to afford accepting migrants anymore.
When will be the time that anti-GMO groups will have good terms with the GM scientists and groups?
I think all it will take is, say for an organization like GreenPeace and one of the other big anti-GMO people, just to admit this is one issue that they have got it wrong. They have to admit that they have got it wrong. GMOs are okay and I think at that point a lot of people will follow suit. Maybe the church and the Pope should try to say something positive about GMOs. That could have a bigger influence around the world.
How do you see the argument about the need to focus on organic food?
Organic food is just an excuse. It is an advertisement excuse to charge more for food. Food is not any better.