Green biotech: safety concerns no longer hold water
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.
Friday, November 3, 2023
At the end of October, the knowledge platform 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. The cultivation of genetically modified seeds is still prohibited in many countries, said Nicole Borel, Head of Communications and Public Affairs at Bayer Switzerland. But things are changing. The evening therefore focused on the opportunities and the potential offered by new breeding technologies.
“More technology is needed to ensure that the world’s population has sufficient affordable food while at the same time protecting the climate and the environment,” said Regina Ammann in her introduction. Ammann is Head of Business Sustainability and Public Affairs at Syngenta in Switzerland. She pointed out the objectives of swiss-food.ch. The knowledge platform aims to provide fact-based information relating to agriculture and nutrition. It supports comprehensive sustainability for the environment, the economy and society. In addition, resource efficiency is of great importance. After all, natural resources are scarce. “That is why we believe that lab-based solutions will play an important role in the future.”
These solutions include breeding technologies that specifically modify targeted genes in contrast to the randomness of traditional breeding. But “genetic engineering” is a provocative term. Genetically modified food triggers strong negative and defensive reactions. In 2005, Switzerland instituted a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops until the end of 2025.
Gene Technology Saves an Entire Industry
Switzerland is not alone, however. This was illustrated by the documentary Food Evolution directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. The documentary shows the emotional opposition around the world to genetic engineering over the past several decades. It opens with a vote by the Hawaii County Council to ban GMOs. This decision was based on the potential health risks alleged by a number of anti-GMO activists.
But the complete ban in Hawaii, which was not based on scientific evidence, was soon overturned. The Rainbow papaya is emblematic of the change that is taking place. Hawaii was once the world leader in papaya exports. But after a virus destroyed the state’s papaya trees, all production came to a halt. It was only through years of research and the successful “vaccination” of the papaya using modified genes that papaya production in Hawaii was saved. Scientific studies have also shown that eating and breeding the virus-resistant Rainbow papaya caused no harm. The genetically engineered papaya is safe for both humans and the environment.
Scott Hamilton Kennedy's film relentlessly exposes how misinformation has been and continues to be deliberately used in the public discourse on genetic engineering around the world. He connects the explanations of plant breeding with the local needs of agriculture. In doing so, the discussion is placed in a psychological, social and scientific context.
There is now broad consensus among scientists that genetically modified crops are no more dangerous than those that are conventionally bred. However, as the documentary illustrates, people would rather trust their gut than scientific facts. This was the starting point for the panel discussion chaired by Reto Brennwald. On the panel were Dr. Angela Bearth (Consumer Behavior Group ETH Zurich and Vice President of the Forum for Genetic Research), Gabi Buchwalder (Director of Sorten für morgen, an association dedicated to developing crop strains for the future), Prof. Dr. Beat Keller (Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich), and Prof. Dr. Dr. Urs Niggli (President of the Institute of Agroecology).
Gabi Buchwalder was shocked by the documentary, and both Urs Niggli and Beat Keller felt transported back to the 90s. Angela Bearth explains the reason for the public’s lack of trust: “The unknown increases the perception of risk. People have deep-seated ideas about what natural means.” Social research has shown that we are cautious when it comes to food. Natural is perceived as healthier. It’s different with medicine. “While many of us may rely on homeopathy for prevention, when we’re sick, we gladly take medication.” We want something that works. The moderator asked whether genetic engineering is about “natural” versus “unnatural” plants. Niggli strongly objects to the use of the term natural. “Agriculture is nothing more than technological development. It has nothing to do with nature. Which is good because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to feed people at all.” Plant scientist Beat Keller agreed and, speaking of the perceived difference between natural and unnatural, said: “Most people don’t realize how unnatural crops today are.” Today’s crops are very far from the plants that grow in nature. They have been specifically bred over time to optimize characteristics such as yield, resistance, appearance, taste, shelf life, etc.
But isn't genetic engineering different? No, says Buchwalder. “Mutations occur in regular wheat fields all the time.” The changes as a result of gene editing are no longer distinguishable from natural mutations. swiss-food.ch has put together a fact sheet, which can be accessed here. “It happens in nature, too,” said Keller. In addition, the safety issue has been scientifically clarified. If we are prepared to listen to the science on climate change, then we must also do so when it comes to genetic engineering. Politicians have come to this realization as well. Over the summer, the UK gave the green light for the production of crops bred with the help of gene editing. Following a proposal by the EU Commission in summer 2023 to loosen the regulatory framework, the EU Parliament began working on a directive in October. The EU has been working intently on this directive. Meanwhile, the Swiss parliament has instructed the Federal Council to present a draft law that allows crops bred with cisgenic genes by mid-2024. The Federal Council continues to drag its heels, however, and wants to hold off submitting its draft law for another year.
For organic pioneer Urs Niggli, the EU proposal is ideal. “Today’s proposal poses no threat to organic farmers.” However, there continues to be resistance. Niggli adds: “GMOs were everyone’s favorite bad guys. You can certainly make a name for yourself by holding GMOs up as the enemy." Niggli, too, fought against genetic engineering in the 1990s. But his views have changed, and he is now in favor of gene editing. One of his hopes is that it will reduce the amount of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers used in the future. He sees both as problematic substances. “Gene editing is a key element that will, alongside precision agriculture, enable us to reduce the use of pesticides.” For Gabi Buchwalder, climate change underscores the importance of rapid advances in plant breeding.
Facing the Facts
All members of the panel agreed that the safety question has been answered. There is a far greater risk associated with not using gene editing in plant breeding. The significant benefits have been scientifically proven. In a dossier, the Swiss Academy of Sciences has presented five plants that are being bred using genome editing, and it is currently becoming clear that the new technologies also have great potential for Swiss apple varieties.
In the public debate, however, the contention that “we do not yet know enough” continues to be raised. Says Beat Keller, “This is the killer criterion that is always cited! These may be new methods, but we are now able to determine exactly what has changed in the genome. Today, the entire genome of an organism can be sequenced. This means that researchers can see immediately whether anything else has occurred besides the desired change. The situation is very different from 20 years ago.” He adds: “It’s not clear what a risk might be. As a scientist, you need hypotheses. You have to articulate what the problem might be. Only if there are concrete hypotheses they can be investigated and refuted. Simply saying you don’t know enough is a poor excuse.” This argument could be used to prevent any new technology. The precautionary principle thus becomes a prohibition principle.
The Dangerous Consequences of Technology Bans
Because the safety argument no longer holds water, opponents today tend to refer to the power of corporations in plant breeding. Urs Niggli states: “It is often argued that the seed products are being monopolized. That the little guys are being squeezed out.” The economic and social phenomena need to be discussed, but that has nothing to do with the technology itself. As Niggli already explained at the beginning. “We don’t need genetic engineering in Switzerland. We can import the best products from all over the world in organic or conventional quality. So it’s not an issue for us. We’re fine. But this does not take into account the implications of our decisions for the rest of the world.”
It is true that the Swiss scientific community in particular has already done a great deal for humanity. ETH researcher Ingo Potrykus and his colleagues, for example, invented golden rice decades ago: This genetically engineered rice could provide millions of impoverished people with essential vitamin A in a daily bowl of rice. However, planting this rice has been prevented by Greenpeace. And this has been done without any scientific evidence, as a recent report by SWR shows.
So it is clear that the Swiss scientific community has an important role to play in the development of plant breeding. According to Keller, however, much of the research work has already moved to other countries, including basic research and research departments in the gene technology industry. He is right to be concerned. The big corporations are flexible, and Switzerland is losing out as a center of innovation. It is not only cooperative research projects that have migrated to universities abroad. There is also no start-up scene. After all, no SME can afford to carry out tests on an expensive protected site due to the risk of vandalism. And young researchers prefer to work in an environment that values their work. Or as one professor of plant biotechnology put it: “I lose young researchers after only a few years. They don’t see any prospects and are fed up with being snubbed by their colleagues just because their field of research is green genetic engineering.” A society’s openness to technology is therefore the basis for the emergence of a vibrant ecosystem in a country. As Keller explains: “I’m afraid that our reticence will result in our simply being steamrolled by global developments.” Then we will only be able to follow what is going on elsewhere. “It’s a shame. We should be proactive and seize the future with both hands.”
Panel discussion chaired by Reto Brennwald
- Dr Angela Bearth, Consumer Behaviour Group ETH Zurich and Vice President Forum Genetic Research (SCNAT)
- Gabi Buchwalder, Board of Varieties for Tomorrow
- Prof. Dr Beat Keller, Institute of Plant and Microbiology, University of Zurich
- Prof. Dr Dr Urs Niggli, President of the Institute of Agroecology
Greenpeace has been fighting bitterly against green genetic engineering for decades. SWR Wissen investigated why the environmental campaign organisation has become so entrenched in the issue and detached itself from scientific evidence. In the case of "Golden Rice", the consequences are particularly glaring. But alarmism also threatens to block important innovations in new breeding methods.
The public is very open to the use of innovative technologies in agriculture. This also applies to targeted plant breeding using modern methods like gene editing.
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.