Green genetic engineering: A rethink is required
There are now more skeptics than ever before when it comes to biotechnological plant breeding methods, despite 30 years of research having produced a clear data basis. Conventional genetic engineering or the more modern CRISPR/Cas method present no increased risks compared to traditional breeding methods, such as cross-breeding. It is time to see new technologies as a way of fighting climate change and preventing environmental damage.
Monday, July 25, 2022
There are two key arguments that are made time and time again by genetic engineering critics. Firstly, they argue that genetically modified (GM) plants could be harmful to human health. Secondly, they repeatedly claim that such plants could have a negative impact on the surrounding ecosystems. However, the results of more than 30 years of research suggest otherwise on both counts. As Bloomberg’s Amanda Little writes, “no evidence has ever been found proving that GMOs harm human health”. The World Health Organization, the US National Academy of Sciences and many other large research institutions around the world have reached the same conclusion.
30 years of research verify safety
It is within the realms of possibility that GM plants start to grow in the wild and crossbreed with related wild species. Plants of this type were found in Mexico in 2001 and 2009. However, no evidence has been found that these plants have brought about negative ecological changes. Urs Niggli, a pioneer of organic products, draws similar conclusions in an article published in the “Der Pragmaticus” online magazine: “The data is clear: In principle, as regards their effect on (agro-)ecosystems and on human health, new breeding methods are indistinguishable from traditional cross-breeding.” According to Niggli, despite this solid data basis, there is a persistent skepticism toward genetic engineering: “30 years of scientific progress, countless studies taking into account society’s viewpoint, thousands of forums and debates, for which scientists take time out of their laboratories, and yet, more than half of the population are still convinced that we do not know enough to open ‘Pandora's Box.’”
Pragmatic solutions not ideology
Green genetic engineering, in particular innovative genome editing, shows huge potential when it comes to breeding drought- and pest-resistant plants. If global agriculture is to sustain 10 billion people by 2050, it will have to be innovative. According to Niggli, this includes modern research methods, digitalization, molecular biology and material sciences (e.g. nanotechnologies for extending the shelf life of food products). Faced with a need for sustainable problem solving, Niggli considers it logical to use these technologies. As the title of the “Pragmaticus” article states: To guarantee food security and simultaneously protect the environment, we need pragmatic solutions, not ideology.
At the end of October, swiss-food.ch hosted a film screening and panel discussion in Zurich on the subject of genome editing entitled “Between Protest and Potential”. The well-attended event dealt with the emotional debates in recent decades surrounding genetic engineering. The event showed that the situation has changed fundamentally.
To denigrate green genetic engineering, narratives that do not stand up to scrutiny keep popping up in the public debate. The aim in each case is political. Recently, the false claims are intended to prevent the regulation of new breeding methods such as Crispr Cas from being technology-friendly.
The science magazine "Einstein" of Swiss Television has addressed the new breeding methods. The report clearly shows that there is no way around these new methods if Switzerland wants to continue cultivating popular apple varieties such as Gala, Braeburn, and Golden Delicious.
In future, the EU wants to treat genome-edited plants in the same way as conventionally bred ones. As the "NZZ am Sonntag" writes, this is like a small revolution. Until now, the commercial use of gene scissors has been impossible due to an extremely restrictive genetic engineering law.