«The fear of genetically modified plants is unwarranted»
Genetically modified plants have garnered a negative reputation, but with new methods, they can hardly be distinguished from conventionally bred plants, as Anke Fossgreen argues in the 'Tages-Anzeiger.'
Thursday, May 25, 2023
The umbrella organization of organic agriculture, Bio Suisse, unanimously decided at its delegates' meeting on Tuesday to continue to refrain from using genetic engineering. The result is not surprising, but disappointing. It demonstrates that organic farmers are disregarding the advancements made in modern breeding research and perpetuating the negative perception of genetically modified food.
Ironically, it is precisely future genetically modified plants that offer possibilities that are important for organic farming as well. Modified plants can, for example, be resistant to diseases, reducing the need for pesticides. They can also be more durable, thereby reducing food waste, or they can withstand drought, which is crucial in the face of climate change.
However, why do many consumers refuse to eat genetically modified plants or animals fed with such plants? These plants, such as wheat, maize, and soybeans, are viewed with suspicion because their genetic makeup has been altered in the laboratory. Yet the fear of 'foreign genes' is unfounded. When we consume an apple, we ingest the fruit's genes; when we eat bread, we consume the grain's genes, and when we have a schnitzel, we consume the genes of a pig. Does this make us sick or alter us in any way? No. During the digestive process, our bodies break down not only proteins, carbohydrates, and fats but also foreign genetic material, utilizing it to sustain ourselves.
The discussion is no longer about the modified plant but the process by which it is produced.
Furthermore, genetic engineering has made significant strides. Today's genetically engineered plants are virtually indistinguishable from conventional breeds. This is achieved through genome editing techniques like the Crispr/CAS method, where the genetic material is slightly modified and optimized, akin to using a scalpel.
Those who previously felt uneasy about consuming genetically modified plants due to their perceived difference from conventionally bred plants no longer have a valid argument. Therefore, the discussion is no longer about the modified plant itself but rather the process by which it is produced.
As a reminder, since 1964, genetic modifications have been introduced into the genome of plants in Europe and elsewhere using methods that may sound alarming. Plants were bombarded with radioactive substances in fields and gardens, and now in laboratories. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, more than 3300 plant varieties have been created through this so-called mutagenesis and have been approved in 70 countries. Some of these varieties are still used and consumed today, including many types of grain, rice, and citrus fruits, such as red grapefruit, which is also sold as an organic product.
In comparison, modern genetic engineering techniques are remarkably gentle and elegant.
While this may initially sound concerning, these plant varieties are not inherently radioactive simply because radiation was used in their production. Similarly, new plant varieties created through mutagenesis are not chemically poisoned, as the mutagenesis process can also be triggered by chemicals. These methods, perceived as 'natural' breeding, are employed to create new varieties.
In comparison, the methods currently discussed to enhance the properties of plants through modern genome editing techniques are remarkably gentle and elegant.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the taste and nutrient content of plants can also be specifically optimized through these methods. Let us embrace the opportunity to experience these new varieties.
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Anke Fossgreen has been leading Tamedia's knowledge team since 2022. She has been working as a science editor at Tamedia since 2000. During her doctoral thesis, she conducted research on Alzheimer's disease. Her interests lie in biology, health, nutrition, medicine, and exercise. This opinion piece was first published in the "Tages-Anzeiger" on April 18.
Journalist, publicist, publisher and historian
Head of Knowledge Team Tamedia
Babette Sigg Frank
President of the Swiss Consumer Forum (KF)
Country President Syngenta Switzerland
Journalist at Lebensmittel Zeitung
Development Editor-in-Chief Agrar-Medien
“Ecological methods alone won’t cut it”
Columnist at Genetic Literacy Project and AGDaily
CEO Syngenta Group
President of Syngenta Crop Protection
Editor-in-Chief of «die grüne» magazine
Professor of Crop Science, ETH Zurich
Head of Biotechnology at Scienceindustries
Lecturer in Sustainability, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL
Agricultural scientist and president of Agroecology Science
Professor of Consumer Behaviour, ETH Zurich
Head of Nutrition and Agriculture at scienceindustries
Dr. Teresa Koller
Researcher at the Institute of Plant and Microbiology at the University of Zurich
Professor for Molecular Plant Breeding, ETH Zurich
Editor-in-Chief of «die grüne» magazine
Head of Business Sustainability, Syngenta Switzerland
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