The sudden government-ordered destruction of a 30-year-old publicly-funded research project in Italy involving transgenic olive trees, cherry trees and kiwifruit vines — one of the longest-running trials on genetic modification in Europe – began on Tuesday under pressure from an environmental group.
Eddo Rugini, a plant scientist at the University of Tuscia, launched his research in 1982, aiming to find varieties that are resistant to pathogens, mainly fungi and bacteria, so as to reduce pesticide use, as well as producing shorter trees that would ease cultivation in certain Italian landscapes.
In 1998, Rugini was given permission to grow the trees. But in 2002, Italy banned all field research of genetically engineered (GE) plants. Because the trees were already growing, he was granted an extension for his work until 2008. But in 2010, a second extension to 2014 was denied by regional authorities.
On 18 May, the Genetic Rights Foundation (GRF), a domestic environmental non-governmental organization, announced that it had “exposed the existence of an experimental field of GE trees” even though government permission had long since expired. It sent a formal letter to Rugini and the local authorities demanding that they immediately dispose of the experiment, in keeping with the law. As a result, the university was ordered to destroy the trees on 12 June.
The order came as a shock to Rugini. Although no extension had been given, there had been no official directive from authorities to destroy the trees either. According to Simone Maccaferri, president of the National Association of Italian Biotechnologists, a formal definitive refusal to extend the deadline was communicated on 1 June.
As a result, the association hurriedly launched an online petition calling for the research to be given a stay of execution, an appeal that received 900 signatories, mainly from scientists and other academics.
“Unfortunately, the experiments have not yet provided significant results as trees require a long time to grow. For this reason, we request that the plants not be destroyed,” read the association’s plea. “Halting research on these trees means a waste of decades of publicly funded research. This perspective is unacceptable and devastating.”
The appeal fell on deaf ears. Maccaferri say that a substantial momentum had built up in recent days through social media, but that the association felt that it had managed to win little coverage in major papers and television. Government authorities also did not communicate any justification for the decision despite lobbying efforts.
University workers were scheduled to use a chemical drying process, he said, but owing to wind conditions, the trees and vines were simply dug up instead. Some 20% of the plot has been ripped up by diggers so far, a process that will continue in the coming days.
“They are destroying everything,” he said, adding that a crowd of students and professors had gathered “to show solidarity and their opposition to this decision.”
The GRF contests the scientists’ claim that there is minimal risk to the wider environment from the trial.
“Cherry trees on site were found to be in full blossom when the field was visited, with no protection in place to prevent pollen dispersion,” the group said. “The presence of bee hives at some half a kilometre from the field increases the possibility of vertical contamination …. In addition, olive trees are widely cultivated at a short distance from the field.”
The researchers say that the GRF is misinformed. The cherry trees in bloom do not need to be covered, as they are not transgenic, they say. Only the rootstock of the cherry trees is transgenic, and they are sterile. The olive trees have yet to produce any flowers, they say. The only plants that could produce pollen are the male kiwifruit plants, but every year, the flowers are removed before they open and are destroyed. The female plants do not produce pollen and have to be pollinated artificially.
Fabrizio Fabbri, the GRF’s scientific director, told Nature that the group was not responsible for the destruction. “We only pointed out two years after a decision had been taken that the plants were still there. If there are laws, they are to be respected.”
He added that he was familiar with the recent controversy in the United Kingdom over a GE wheat trial that an environmental group, Take the Flour Back, last month had threatened to destroy but was prevented from doing so by police.
“I don’t like the act of destruction, but on the other hand, I leave it up to people living there to take their own decisions,” he added. “If the debate was started earlier, if researchers had talked to people, this could have been prevented.”
Fabbri, who trained as an ecologist at the Sapenzia University of Rome, says he hopes that samples had been collected to allow continuation of research so as to “better understand the risk of contamination”.