Research in Green Genetic Engineering is Indispensable

Science and business in Germany demand more reliable legal and political frameworks and a more open social climate in order to be able to better exploit the opportunities offered by green genetic engineering.
Tuesday 2 June 2009 (9 years 7 months 20 days ago)
Science and business in Germany demand more reliable legal and political frameworks and a more open social climate in order to be able to better exploit the opportunities offered by green genetic engineering. With this objective, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and the Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft (German Agricultural Society, DLG) released a joint memorandum on 13 May in Berlin, which brings the position of research into green genetic engineering in Germany back to centre stage. Research programmes carried out in this highly promising field were being more and more seriously affected by misguided political decisions, such as the current ban on growing genetically modified maize, and by the illegal destruction of field trials. "Scientists at universities, public research institutions and in medium-sized businesses therefore find themselves increasingly compelled to restrict their research projects in the area of green genetic engineering or to abandon them entirely. There is a danger that this will mean an important research direction in Germany will be lost," argue the DFG and the DLG.

The memorandum, a response to an initiative of the DFG Senate Commission on Substances and Resources in Agriculture and the DLG, calls emphatically for a change in current policy. "Politicians and society at large should have a strong interest in Germany also assuming a leading position in research into green genetic engineering again, so that it is able to fulfil its responsibilities in the international community." This is the only way to allow the enormous potentials of green genetic engineering to be exploited for supplying humanity with sufficient healthy foods, environmentally friendly energy generation and for overcoming climate change.

At the presentation of the memorandum the President of the DFG, Professor Matthias Kleiner, emphasised the significance of basic research for the utilisation of green genetic engineering. At the same time Kleiner expressed his support for more field trials. “In order to continue to take full advantage of the genetic potential of our crops, what is needed above all is basic research that can call on the entire repertoire of modern cultivation methods - not only in the laboratory, but also outdoors. In order to learn how plants behave under real conditions, field trials are indispensable," said the DFG President. Science carries a particular responsibility when it comes to the assessment of the opportunities and risks of green genetic engineering, and especially the release of genetically modified organisms, he continued. "This high level of responsibility is something our scientists are fully aware of, and they take it very seriously," Kleiner stressed. This sense of responsibility, however, must be matched by an equivalent amount of freedom. "Responsibility and freedom are inextricably linked in basic research." Freedom of research should not be allowed to fall victim to election campaigns; rather scientists should be encouraged in their freedom to do research and have their basic rights reinforced. The DFG President explicitly welcomed the "Round Table" proposed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research on the science and policy aspects of green genetic engineering: "I hope that this will keep the discussion on a factual level and that the politicians responsible will follow the arguments of the scientific community on this issue."

DLG Präsident Carl Albrecht Bartmer, with a view to the continuous growth of the world population, referred to the necessity of increasing the productivity of agricultural land. This is an urgent requirement, in his view, because the fertile agricultural areas available worldwide could only be increased by an insignificant amount, and due to climatic effects their yield capacity would change. "We must learn the lessons of Lampedusa and face the challenge of global nutrition, even here in abundant Germany," emphasised the DLG President. Numeric and economic growth in the world population would also have an energy-related component. Biomass would create additional degrees of freedom in the sustainable energy mixture of the future. Also, industrial demand for raw materials based on plants would clearly increase. For Bartmer, these are all facts which are already triggering a challenging demand dynamic in themselves. All three aspects occurring together would clearly intensify the situation. "Shortages on world agricultural markets are therefore to be expected." The responsibility assumed by the utilisation of progress and innovation and by research funding are therefore of a geopolitical dimension. "Germany and Europe, privileged by their know-how, land and climate, but above all by a highly qualified and innovative agriculture and food industry, bear a special responsibility here," emphasised Bartmer.

The development biologist and Nobel Prize recipient for medicine, Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, from Tübingen, expressed concern during the presentation of the memorandum over the consequences of current political decisions on green genetic engineering and research in Germany. In particular, the ban on the release of genetically modified maize sends "a frightening message". The basis of the release embargo is based upon unrealistic tests, the scientist argued. On the contrary, there had been numerous studies funded by the EU, the DFG and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research which had established that there was no threat to people or the natural environment from genetically modified maize. Now the fear is that many innovative researchers will turn their backs on Germany. "Research is international, and restrictions in this country certainly do not prevent progress worldwide, but in fact they shut German researchers as well as plant breeders out of international competition," underlined Nüsslein-Volhard: "The pioneering role of Germany in plant breeding, which represents a large amount of potential, and thereby capital of our country, is seriously endangered." In the opinion of the Nobel laureate, the current situation of green genetic engineering resembles that of genetic engineering in medicine 25 years ago. Even in this initial phase of “red” genetic engineering, many researchers had left Germany following irrational political decisions, and pharmaceutical companies had shifted jobs abroad. "In the meantime reason has broken out in the application of genetic engineering in medicine. But instead of learning from the mistakes, they are repeated," argued Nüsslein-Volhard.

"Germany is dependent on innovations and lives off high-technology products as well as the rapid transfer of research results from science to business." This point was highlighted by Dr. Arend Oetker. At the same time the president of the Donors´ Association for the Promotion of Science and Humanities made clear that in the "High-tech Strategy for Germany", innovation expertise from both business and science is combined. A faster transfer into practice and better products would be the result. Strategies for improving the position of Germany in relation to the international competition are crucial foundations for the country’s economic and social prosperity. In his view, hindering the practical application of green genetic engineering and the reservations and fears stirred up by many politicians vis-à-vis green genetic engineering would present substantial obstacles to these demands for innovation. "Especially now, in times of the gravest economic crisis in 80 years, we stand emphatically against this position." With a view to the consumer benefits, products of green genetic engineering are under development that are predicted to come on to the market in the next ten years. These include, for example, improved nutrient compounds (proteins, amino acids, vitamins, etc.), the elimination of undesirable characteristics (allergens, bitter agents, toxins, etc.) as well as the improvement of shelf life/storage stability. For him, PR work with regard to the wider public is essential. Dr. Arend Oetker sees the necessity of a communication process appropriate to different target-groups in strengthening these relationships, which should begin in the schools and universities. This is essential in his view, so that innovations can be driven forward in all areas of research. "This is central to the security of the German economy, and to maintaining our prosperity."

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