Debate: What constitutes ecological damage?

“I work on the basis that an intact ecosystem can be distinguished by its ability to change.”

Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Jacobsen, Dept. of Molecular Genetics, University of Hanover, President of Vdbiol (the association of German biologists and bioscience companies)

GMO Safety: What do you regard as ecological damage, generally and in the context of using genetically modified plants?

Hans-Jörg Jacobsen: Ecological damage is irreversible, foreseeable damage to humans, animals or ecosystems caused by man. The firing of Kuwaiti oil wells by Saddam counts in just the same way as firing ammunition containing uranium.

GMO Safety: How do you differentiate between “ecological damage” and “acceptable environmental impact”?

Hans-Jörg Jacobsen: All human actions have an impact on the environment. It seems to me that those that serve human nutrition and health are acceptable. Otherwise, even the first farmers over ten thousand years ago would have been “environmental pests”.

GMO Safety: How can changes to ecosystems caused by GM plants be assessed? What assessment criteria would you allow? Only scientific ones, or would you also include ethical, religious and socio-economic criteria?

Hans-Jörg Jacobsen: In my view only scientific criteria are valid. I work on the basis that an intact ecosystem can be distinguished by its ability to change. In view of the fact that horizontal gene transfer was presumably an aspect of evolution, I have no problem with GM plants. Incidentally, I regard all ‘conserving’ ideologies as showing a lack of knowledge of the principles of evolution. I respect these ideologies to varying degrees, but don’t take them particularly seriously.

GMO Safety: Do GM plants have any particular requirements in terms of the embodiment and application of the precautionary principle?

Hans-Jörg Jacobsen: The precautionary principle as such is questionable. If I were to agree with the precautionary principle as a central concept, I would also have to accept George W. Bush’s war against Iraq, which in my view is unjustified. I am no more able to do this than to consider this principle important in the case of GM plants. Even Bush, that total loser, needed no evidence of weapons of mass destruction before launching an attack; mere suspicion was enough for him, as it is for many ideologists in this country. English makes a distinction between the “precautionary principle” and the “precautionary approach”. German sticklers for principles probably can’t make this distinction. Perhaps that explains why there is no neat translation of the term “precautionary approach” in German.