Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Following science also in plant breeding

Dear readers,

All plant breeding technologies involve genetic alterations. Our cultivated plants are the result of human intervention in the plant genome. Initially, targeted crossings were used by humans to improve plants, but this process was time-consuming. Since the 1930s, newer breeding methods such as mutagenesis have accelerated the process. Mutagenesis involves treating plants with chemicals or irradiating them with radioactivity to induce mutations in their genetic material. The resulting mutants are then screened for interesting genes respectively desired traits, which are subsequently incorporated into existing varieties. Random mutagenesis is an untargeted intervention in the genome and often produces undesirable outcomes. It is inefficient and time-consuming. This untargeted breeding approach is also used in organic farming.

This means that as well organic farming utilizes vegetable varieties with modified genetic material. Whether it's organic or conventional farming, we all appreciate vegetables that do not taste bitter, for example. The bitterness has been bred out. Breeding is not natural per se. Humans have been adapting crops to their needs since they became sedentary. This realization may be bitter for those who still believe that they are consuming "pure nature" when eating familiar vegetables.

In untargeted intervention in the plant genome, breeders rely on chance, much like rolling a dice until a six comes up. They wait for luck. However, modern plant breeding is targeted. It relies on the gene scissors CRISPR/Cas or other genome editing techniques. These tools allow precise interventions in the genome. We have explained this process in our glossary on The advantages are evident: precision breeding enables the creation of more robust plants.

The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) recently published a brochure explaining specific examples of the use of gene scissors in Swiss agriculture. It is recommended reading for everyone. Genome editing can be used to breed vine varieties that are more resistant to mildew, strengthen the resistance of apple trees against devastating fire blight, make tomatoes less susceptible to viruses, and better protect potatoes against late blight. Targeted breeding reduces food waste and minimizes the use of crop protection products. The examples are compelling, and a summary can be found on

Genome editing with native genes is not fundamentally different from conventional breeding. However, because this technique is more precise, it results in fewer unintended mutations. Hence, there is a broad scientific consensus that genome editing should not be regulated differently from conventional breeding methods. Those who advocate "following the science" on climate change must not ignore the broad scientific consensus on plant breeding methods either. Opponents of genome editing fall short on evidence as they ignore science and continue to repeat outdated doomsday predictions.

One particularly striking example is the German environmental organization "Aurelia," which openly admits its conflict with science in an internal strategy paper, as reported by "Welt am Sonntag": "With primarily scientific arguments, we can only lose because we have nothing to counter the 'Follow the Science-Leopoldina-Authority-Framing'..." Consequently, environmentalists conclude that a new narrative is needed for the application of genetic engineering in plant breeding. This new narrative should not be based on facts but rather on emotions such as freedom of choice, love for nature (bees), and the power of seed corporations. Greenpeace's unscientific opposition to Golden Rice falls into the same category. Golden Rice has the potential to save children's lives every day in developing countries, yet Greenpeace has been fighting against its cultivation for years, currently in the Philippines. This is a deadly nonsense.

Nevertheless, the scientific consensus is increasingly influencing politics. Since March 2023, the United Kingdom has allowed the cultivation of genome-edited crops. British farmers will now be able to grow plants specifically fortified against climate change, diseases, and pests. This serves both sustainability and regional production and provides a boost to English research.

It appears that the European Union (EU) will also soon give the green light to genome editing. As reported by the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (FAZ), the EU is paving the way for gene-editing tools. The European Union aims to regulate plants bred through genome editing in the same way as conventionally bred plants in the future. The European Commission plans to present a proposal on the regulation of new breeding technologies in early July. However, before the project can be implemented, the law must be approved by the EU Council of 27 member states and the EU Parliament.

To date, the EU, like Switzerland, has been very restrictive. Scientifically, the restrictive stance can hardly be defended anymore. Matthias Berninger, responsible for sustainability at Bayer, highlights the urgent need for accelerated breeding of new varieties: "We have to turn on the turbo if we want to keep up with the rapidly advancing climate change." He further asks, "Who will take responsibility for the risks to food security if we leave the potential of this new technology untapped?"

This is a valid question, and German Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger has a clear answer. She believes that the use of new breeding technologies is indispensable. It is essential for securing food supplies and adapting the agricultural economy to climate change. Additionally, genome editing serves as an innovation booster for Germany. She does not want to take the risk of leaving the new technology unused. Austrian scientific institutions also appeal for the new breeding methods to be evaluated "without prejudice, with an open mind and on the basis of scientific evidence."

Politically, targeted breeding with gene-editing tools is gaining traction. In Switzerland, both the National Council and the Council of States are calling on the Federal Council to draft a law by 2024. This law would no longer subject plants bred using new breeding technologies like CRISPR/Cas, without foreign DNA, to the genetic engineering moratorium. Hannes Germann, a member of the Council of States from the SVP, stated in parliament, "These new methods will enable us to respond to climatic challenges. The goal is to legally equate genome-edited plants, which do not contain foreign genetic material, with conventionally bred plants. The fact is that they cannot be distinguished from conventionally bred plants, so labeling them is senseless. The fact that (organic) plants have been cultivated by means of chemical or radioactive treatment is not advertised today as well.

In line with scientific consensus, the media is increasingly recognizing that the fears surrounding plants bred using these methods are unfounded. Anke Fossgreen, head of Tamedia's "Knowledge" team, describes the new breeding methods as "extremely gentle and elegant" compared to conventional breeding, which involves the use of chemicals and radioactive beams. It is disappointing to see that organic farmers disregard the achievements of the latest research. In fact, Bio Suisse still refuses to acknowledge the benefits of new breeding methods, despite organic pioneer Urs Niggli, for example, advocating for precision breeding for some time.

The well-known agricultural journalist Jürg Vollmer also advocates the approval of the gene scissors. He considers modern genome editing a logical continuation of mutation and mutagenesis in plant breeding. Important to emphasize: Bio Suisse, as a marketing organization, is at liberty to exclude the advantages of the new breeding methods as long as its contractual partners go along with it. But it is shocking when they call for a ban also for the (much larger) rest of agriculture. If no foreign DNA is present in a genome-edited plant and if it could also have arisen under natural conditions through random mutation, it is evaluated like a classically bred plant. There are no fundamental differences in terms of the safety of these plants. ETH plant researcher Bruno Studer stated in an interview as early as 2020, "If Switzerland opts out here, innovative approaches will be generated and implemented elsewhere. In the long run, we would miss out on an interesting tool to meet the enormous challenges of the future and it would be a missed opportunity for a more sustainable agriculture."

But the Federal Council is taking its time, as its disappointing answer to a parliamentary question in the summer session shows.

But time is of the essence in agriculture, as the challenges it faces are immense. As farming becomes increasingly challenging due to weather fluctuations, input losses, frequent food shortages and price increases, and the transformation to more sustainable food systems has become a standing term, action should be faster, not slower. Agriculture requires innovative and climate-resilient varieties in its toolbox. As Matthias Benz writes in the "NZZ," "New technologies are a crucial key to making food more environmentally friendly." He calls on Switzerland and the EU to take a leaf out of the Americans' book of openness and focus less on the precautionary principle, which is increasingly becoming a prohibitive principle. And he concludes by saying, "Food production has become one of the most technologically interesting industries in recent years. It is high time for Europe to take advantage of this potential."

Yours sincerely,

The swiss-food editorial team

The swiss-food platform provides information relating to agriculture and nutrition. It is committed to providing factual information and promoting large-scale sustainability.
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