Crispr/Cas: Is new genetic engineering just a smoke screen?

Our author: Carolin Pagel, bioland trade journal

Various actors took advantage of this year’s international World Food Day to raise the theme of new gene technology. For example, Handelsblatt, in collaboration with the Bayer Group, put it on the program of an event with top speakers and asked the question “Do we need more genetic engineering to feed the world?”.

Bioland chairman Jan Plagge, who was invited to exchange blows with Prof. Nicolaus von Wirén of IPK Gatersleben, replied with a resounding no. “Gene scissors don’t help us fight the root causes of hunger,” said the 51-year-old.

One should be aware that, in addition to climate change and wasted resources, wars, poverty and inequality are the main reasons why nearly one billion people in the world still go hungry – and the trend continues. “New technologies sound attractive, but the discussion about necessary steps should not be reduced to technical solutions,” says Plagge with conviction.

Don’t see genetic engineering as a panacea

According to him, the new gene technologies such as Crispr/Cas are not the panacea for which they are often presented. Proponents of genetic engineering, on the other hand, refute that genetic engineering is not a panacea, but should be seen and used as a building block for greater sustainability and ecologization.

But a look at reality tells us otherwise: for example, the use of the total herbicide glyphosate has increased fivefold worldwide since the introduction of herbicide-resistant GMO plants. This time it’s different, according to proponents of the exception for Crispr and Co. on the European Genetic Engineering Act.

The European Commission also sees the new genetic engineering as an opportunity to reduce pesticide use in the EU. But that is still a long way off, because the current patent applications point in the same direction as the previous ones.

A report from the EU’s Joint Research Center shows that research is being conducted into many possible applications in the areas of stress tolerance, changed composition of ingredients and new properties in relation to crop and plant growth. However, when it comes to near-market applications, herbicide resistance is still the most common trait.

Plant genetics remains complex

The promises of drought-resistant strains raise questions. Anyone who breeds plants knows how complex the genetic and physiological interactions are. Inde Sattler, co-founder of the apfel:gut association and organic farmer, explains: “The penetration of polygenic resistances, which have been able to develop locally, takes time and many years of field research.”

It is therefore important that the plant can interact with the environment under ecological growing conditions in order to develop locally. “Monogenic resistances won’t get us any further, according to decades of experience in biological breeding research. What we need is the genetic diversity of robust plants,” emphasizes Inde Sattler. One thing is certain: a lot can be achieved with breeding.

Clear labeling required

From a consumer protection point of view, strict criteria such as clear labeling and a safety and risk assessment must be ensured. The fact that a distinction is now being made between new and old gene technology is also because the new gene technology can bring about changes that can also occur naturally. These mutations are therefore not detectable. However, verifiability is mainly a matter of legal requirements. If the focus were on the process, traceability would be achievable.

It is de facto impossible to retrieve it. “Especially with such powerful tools, safe risk assessment and traceability of the application should be a matter of course in order to take countermeasures in case of doubt,” argues Karin Agerer, a member of the GENial working group. The Bioland farmer from the Allgäu therefore argues for the continuation of the precautionary principle.

Holistic view required

The desire to change current regulations is often presented as a scientific consensus. However, a study recently published by the Greens in the European Parliament makes it clear that the individual researchers and the lobby groups examined cannot be regarded as representatives of general science. Because they mainly represent genetics and molecular biology.

On the other hand, according to the study, interdisciplinary expertise is lacking, which is important for estimating possible negative consequences of new genetic engineering processes in agriculture. This includes expertise in ecology, agroecology, socio-economics, toxicology and public health. Systemic problems such as the hunger and climate crisis or the extinction of species must be answered with holistic solutions.

“Of course we have to pull out all the stops given the current challenges,” Jan Plagge realizes. “But what needs to be signed are again the supposedly simple technical solutions. With that, we are entering the next dead end.” Because groundbreaking successes of the new gene technology in the field of climate adaptation have not yet been achieved. This also applies to countries where the legislation is less strict.

The full article was published in November 2022 in the journal bioland.

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