Seven years of cutting-edge research – with the handbrake on
In its February 5 issue, the “BauernZeitung” newspaper looked at the only facility in Europe where field research involving genetically modified plants can be carried out. Agroscope has maintained a secure testing area at the Reckenholz site in Zurich since 2014. However, the moratorium on genetic engineering imposes narrow limits.
Friday, February 12, 2021
- In Reckenholz, Zurich, Agroscope has been researching genetically modified plants with resistance to mildew or fire blight since 2014.
- However, the restrictive conditions imposed by the GMO moratorium are a massive obstacle to research.
- Switzerland as a research location suffers from this, but so does the environment.
There’s not much happening in the fields at Agroscope at the moment. But soon, after the snow and cold are gone and the first signs of spring herald the start of warm weather, the green shoots at the Reckenholz site in Zurich will make be making their appearance. At first, they will not look all that different from those that sprout outside of the enclosed test facility. And yet there is one small, but crucial difference: Most of the plants in the test fields have been genetically modified and may only be cultivated at this special location.
Restrictive field tests in the Zurich region
There has been a moratorium on genetic engineering in Switzerland since 2005. While research into genetic engineering is permitted, sowing genetically modified plants is prohibited – with the exception of the test fields at Reckenholz. Several multi-year field tests involving genetically modified crops have been conducted there since 2014, as Agroscope writes in a recent article about the protected site. Research has been conducted into mildew in spring wheat, fire blight in apples and fungal resistance in barley. As part of another project, targeted interventions in the genome were used in an attempt to increase crop yields of winter wheat. The test facility at Reckenholz is a victory for researchers. The Agroscope fields occupy a unique position within Europe. But the path from the lab to the field is arduous. Before field trials can begin, applications must be submitted to the Federal Office for the Environment. It often takes six months before the application can be submitted. After it has been submitted, it can take another six to seven months before authorization is granted and work in the field can begin. If the response is received just a few weeks later, it may be too late to sow the seeds, and this step has to be delayed a year.
Requirements that hinder research
But the application is not the only step that involves time. So too do the steps intended to ensure that no genetically modified materials escape the test field. For example, for the resistance testing involving apple trees, it had to be ensured that the pollen from the trees did not spread. Because of the necessary artificial interventions to the blossoms, it was not possible to make any further conclusions regarding the fruit yield. So the strict requirements at Reckenholz limit the findings in many ways, which might otherwise have been learned as part of the test series.
The planned extension of the moratorium on genetic engineering until 2026 also has a limiting effect. While field research would still be possible, the application-oriented research would be of less interest, write the authors from Agroscope. The time is ideal for driving forward and expanding the research into new procedures. In particular, the new methods of plant breeding based on gene editing are promising. But according to the Federal Council, these approaches will also explicitly fall under the extended moratorium. “There are now plants in many countries that are modified using this technology with no genetic information that are not classified as GMO, and it is likely that the authorization of such varieties in these markets will rise sharply,” write the Agroscope authors. Worldwide, there are some 140 market-oriented crops that have been developed using gene editing.
It will also be possible to conduct more research on gene-edited plants at Reckenholz in the future. But if the moratorium on genetic engineering is continued in the planned form, there will likely be narrow limits placed on the tests. To the detriment of research and innovation in Switzerland.
The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) recognizes the significant opportunities offered by new breeding methods. In a new dossier, the Academy presents five examples of crops cultivated using genome editing, which have high potential for Swiss agriculture. This publication emphasizes the scientific consensus on the use of genetic scissors. The new breeding methods offer numerous advantages for the environment and agriculture.
Modern crop protection products must be safe, targeted and short-lived – i.e. degraded shortly after reaching their target – without leaving behind biologically active degradation products.
Bioengineered crops have been cultivated in many parts of the world for around 25 years. Several publications bear witness to the great benefits of biotechnology in agriculture. The cultivation of the plants has a positive effect on the environment, the climate and yields for farmers.
Heat waves are posing a major challenge to cultivation around the world. Water shortages and droughts are resulting in heavy crop losses for the agricultural industry. Because droughts will be more frequent in the future, the search for plant varieties that consume less water is a top priority. One drought-tolerant wheat variety from Argentina is showing great potential.