Today, genetically modified organism (GMO) foods are front and center in the discussion on food sustainability. While some allege that interfering in the genetic makeup of food items such as corn and wheat will be a hazard to human health and jeopardize the future of humankind, others view GMO foods as a ray of hope for impoverished nations. Claims that the world’s population is growing rapidly and that the world’s current food stock will not be able to meet the demands of this new population also affect the debate. Undoubtedly poverty and hunger are significant and life-threatening issues for human beings, and history provides evidence that starvation has wiped out entire generations, permanently transforming the demographic makeup of the earth.
Humans pass on not only magnificent structures, technology and works of art to their inheritors, but also agricultural knowledge – with agriculture being one of the characteristics distinguishing humans from other creatures. The Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA), which primarily focuses on researching global issues such as nuclear energy, global warming and genetics, aims to protect this universal knowledge.
The agency started the SAFENUT project in 2007, focusing on the genetic structure of hazelnuts and almonds within the European Union. The project aims to determine the genetic diversity of hazelnuts and almonds in the Mediterranean and to code the related genetic diseases in order to establish a data bank. It aims to preserve the diversity of the two nuts and make it possible to transfer this diversity on to future generations. As of today, 820 types of hazelnuts and 90 diseases have been identified. The research is focused on the genetic structure of not only hazelnuts and almonds, but also considers other plants. The staff is made up of a diverse team of researchers from Syria to South Korea.
Dr. Loretta Bacchetta, a biologist specializing in hazelnuts and almonds, coordinates the research of this project. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Dr. Bacchetta reveals why hazelnuts and almonds were chosen for the research, “The two products have great economic value for Italy and cover an extensive region from the point of production. Italy is the second largest producer and exporter of hazelnuts, next to Turkey. …The production of almonds started to decrease rapidly after 1980, and we witnessed the American almond invade the market. The research is thus important in keeping the native genes alive.”
Dr. Bacchetta also stressed the need to preserve agriculture as an occupation and to protect conventional agricultural techniques, thereby passing them on to future generations. Thus, the SAFENUT project focuses mostly on improving and preserving the genetic structure of the diverse species of hazelnuts. The project manager, Dr. Laura Maria Padovani, stresses that sustainability is key to these projects. Padovani revealed that her focus is mainly on energy research that helps to meet Italy’s increasing energy demand. She also does not fail to put aside time for genetic research and criticized the Italian government for not supporting these projects nearly enough. She noted that the Italian government should provide incentives, as agriculture is “crucial for Italy.”
Lack of demand for GMO hazelnuts
Speaking on whether genetically modified hazelnuts are possible, Dr. Bacchetta notes that although this is possible, there may not be positive results. Maria Aramini, who researches the molecular and genetic structures of the hazelnuts that are grown in regions like Sicily and Torino, stated that the hazelnut already has the perfect mix of nutrients for our bodies with its existing genetic structure. Aramini, speaking about the benefits of consuming hazelnuts, noted that “eating only 25-30 grams of hazelnut each day meets the daily requirement for vitamin E. The hazelnut is a vital source in balanced daily n