Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Bans did not move society forward

Dear reader,

According to statistics from vegetable producers, Swiss people eat nearly nine kilos of carrots per year. At least, that was the case in 2020. This makes carrots the most popular vegetable in Switzerland. The majority of these are locally produced. And now the bad news: ‘Switzerland is in a carrot crisis’, as a recent ‘Blick’ headline stated. Stocks are quickly being depleted. According to ‘Blick’, Migros informs that carrots will soon have to be imported. The reason for this carrot shortage is last summer’s crop failures. The poor weather conditions have severely affected both the domestic production of carrots and onions. Seeds could not be sown or sown too late, diseases due to fungal attack have spread. And so stock vegetables become a scarce commodity.

However, this resource scarcity is far-reaching – and this is also reflected in prices. Everyday products such as bread and pasta are severely affected by price rises. This is caused by the increasing wheat prices. Crop failures, increasing demand and quality issues are also contributing factors. ‘The quality is very sad’, a baker is quoted as saying in the Aargauer Zeitung’s survey of various bakeries. The shortage caused wheat prices to soar to a historic high in November 2021. This also drives up bread and croissant prices, which rose by 10 to 15 percent. And if a kilo of Coop’s Prix Garantie fusilli now costs CHF 1.20 rather than 0.90, that represents an increase of 30 percent. The unstable international situation could result in further price increases: for example, energy prices for the lettuce producer, Beerstecher in Hinwil, have doubled in a short period of time. This could also drive up retail prices for lettuce, as SRF reports. The socially vulnerable are particularly severely affected by price rises for staple food. According to the Caritas website, 735,000 people in Switzerland were living in poverty in 2019. In addition, 1.32 million people were at risk of poverty even before COVID-19.

Consumers as a whole are sensitive to price. This is the result of a survey conducted by the Swiss Retail Federation. When making a purchasing decision, the price is more important than the so-called sustainability labels. Comprehensive sustainability therefore also has a social component. The healthy eating discussed in the last newsletter – healthy both for individuals and for the planet – must incorporate the affordability of staples for the population, not just here but all over the world. Conflicts such as war and displacement, drought, climate change and the impact of COVID-19 are all severely endangering food security for many people, as Welthungerhilfe warns.

It became clear in 2021, the affordability of staples is affected by the availability of raw materials. Farmers need technologies to protect their harvests against disease, pests and weeds. This is the only way that they can provide consumers with enough fruit and vegetables of sufficient quality. Plant breeding is vital for the future success of cultivation efforts. Resistant varieties are more necessary than ever. In a convincing plea in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper (FAZ), the German Nobel prize winner and biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard called for gene scissors to be used in agriculture and even organic farming. She promotes approving the CRISPR/Cas9 method and thus decries the mental blockade on the part of the Greens and other objectors, which is in fact thwarting sustainable innovation. The researcher writes: ‘Reason demands that we approve such breeding, because apart from its economic benefit thanks to increased yields, it also plays a major role in conserving nature, preserving biodiversity and avoiding insect decline.’ Christiane Nüsslein is not alone in promoting this: bioresearch pioneer Urs Niggli has long been warning about the absurd situation of conventional farmers cultivating genome-edited potatoes without the use of pesticides – whilst organic farmers have to spray the toxic heavy metal copper to protect their potatoes.

The Swiss Parliament is still fighting to find a sensible regulation of genome-edited crops. It is becoming increasingly clear that a total ban would not be the right course of action. What is required is differentiated regulation that enables new technologies with clear benefits. Blanket obstructionist policies are a dead end. Genome editing has the potential to improve the cultivation properties of old varieties. These are varieties that consumers know well. They already have a market. In viticulture, an example would be Riesling-Silvaner. For winemakers, it would be a blessing if they were permitted to use targeted breeding to reduce this popular variety’s susceptibility to mildew. Well-known potato varieties could be made better able to withstand blight by incorporating resistant genes from wild varieties.

Breeding also helps with small, everyday issues: for example, an onion is being marketed in the UK that does not induce tears when it is chopped. There are various applications: improved varieties strengthen crop resistance, increase shelf-life, and are thus less susceptible to food waste – or breeding increases the nutrient content. Enabling varieties to better withstand climate stress is a key topic, as falling harvests are expected from as early as 2030 onwards. We are running out of time. This is another argument for gene scissors: It takes 15 years to breed resistant varieties using the classical breeding method. Gene scissors speed up this process massively. To Swiss agriculture expert Jürg Vollmer, things are clear: genome editing can appropriately combine the benefits of wild and cultivated plants.

In summary: society has not progressed through bans and risk avoidance, but through innovation and a factual weighing of opportunities and risks. Breeding currently offers such an opportunity for a step forward in innovation. However, innovation requires a reliable environment, since it is dependent on vision, courage and investment. Research investments are made when the market is willing to pay for such solutions and the returns from the use of the innovation are secured by intellectual property protection. In a market economy, this protection is provided via patent law and trademark law, and in plant breeding also by plant varieties protection. The protection of intellectual property offers an incentive to undertake research, put the findings to commercial use, and thus to invest funds in innovations again in the future. Unlike trade secrets, patents create transparency thanks to their entry in the patent register, and thus serve as drivers for further innovation. As a country poor in raw materials, Switzerland is well advised to take care of patent protection and thus innovation protection.

The editorial team

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