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Is green genetic engineering sustainable?

Anyone researching green genetic engineering will soon get drawn into controversy. In fact, modification of the hereditary properties of agricultural crops is probably the most controversial field of biotechnology. Its advocates offer the prospect of a way of combatting hunger in an ever-expanding world – but its opponents warn of unforeseen consequences.

Green genetic engineering as it is used in agriculture and the food industry is all about creating new species of plants that are highly resistant to pests and pesticides or contain higher levels of nutrients than traditional plants. The idea is not new; in fact, farmers have been doing this for thousands of years, crossing and breeding plants to produce new and stronger species.

Green genetic engineering goes a step further, however: biotechnologists modify the hereditary properties of plants by introducing a foreign gene with certain characteristics into the plant’s genetic structure. This creates transgenic plants – plants whose genetic properties have been modified so that they need less fertiliser and fewer pesticides but produce better yields. Green genetic engineering is also intended as a major contribution toward sustainability.

Two examples of genetically modified plants – maize and rice

A species of rice with a gene known as ‘Pup1’ could be very important: ‘Pup’ stands for phosphorus uptake, and this gene improves the ability of rice plants to absorb phosphorus, which they need as a fertiliser. This kind of rice could be extremely useful in developing countries, where farmers are very poor and cannot afford fertilisers. Many researchers around the world are working on it, including Matthias Wissuwa, originally from Germany, who currently works as a plant breeder at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS). He has discovered that an ancient Indian species of rice can thrive even in soil that is poor in phosphorus purely because it has the Pup1 gene.

However, it is often many years before scientists discover how genetically modified plants and the pests associated with them evolve. The western corn rootworm is a voracious beetle that is greatly feared by farmers. Insecticides help control it, but after an attack, farmers are not allowed to grow maize in the affected field for two years. Western corn rootworm causes enormous losses for farmers – and substantial damage to the environment.

In 2003, the US seed company Monsanto developed a genetically modified form of maize that uses a toxin – a poison – to resist western corn rootworm, and in 2012, 15 million hectares of agricultural land were planted with this genetically modified maize. Yields rose, and the use of pesticides dropped, but then – according to scientists at Iowa State University writing in the journal PLOS ONE – the rootworm developed resistance to the toxin and made a comeback, causing as much damage it had previously.

Green genetic engineering in Germany and across Europe

Legislation requires food labelling to indicate whether, for example, a particular food has been produced using genetically modified soya. The website of Greenpeace in Germany carries a list of all products labelled in this way (in German only).

However, Greenpeace has also identified a loophole in the law: animal products (milk, eggs and meat) from animals fed on genetically modified plants do not have to be labelled in this way. The majority of genetically modified plants grown around the world end up in animal feed without the consumer being aware of this and find their way indirectly into foods such as eggs, cold meats and yoghurt.

The pros: green genetic engineering is sustainable

Views about green genetic engineering tend to polarise. Scientist Matin Qaim, Professor of World Nutrition at Göttingen University, sees it as an opportunity to reduce our consumption of resources. For him, genetic improvements have huge potential that needs to be exploited through both conventional and biotechnological approaches to plant breeding. (Source: GMO safety page of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research)

Advocates of green genetic engineering argue that it boosts crop yields, reduces crop failure and means less use of pesticides. Its benefits are not confined to food, either. Industrial manufacturing is a further application, as an alternative to the energy-intensive use of petroleum. Researchers at the universities of Rostock, Berlin, Bielefeld and Tübingen in Germany have, for example, developed a potato that supplies a biodegradable form of plastic.

... and the cons: green genetic engineering brings risks

The Munich Environmental Institute, however, describes gene engineering of plants as a ‘lottery with very uncertain outcomes’. They argue that a genome – the complete genetic make-up of an organism – isn’t ‘a box of building bricks’ to which new genes can be added at will.  Genetically modified plants like maize or cotton, they say, continuously produce a bacterial poison that is fatal to insects, but this poses a substantial risk to the environment: research has shown that the poison kills not only pests but also beneficial insects. Maize is also a good example of how some genetically modified species encourage the development of resistant pests.

Other critics argue that small-scale farmers in poor countries are losing their livelihoods as the price of seed and pesticides rises sharply. They are bound by contracts that force them to buy their genetically modified seeds and their pesticides from the same company. And because companies like Monsanto have patented their seeds, the farmers are also prevented from using seed from their own crops to replant for the next growing season. They end up being dependent on a small number of major agricultural and chemical companies.

December 2013

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