Debate: What constitutes ecological damage?

“Abandoning the use of GM plants would be a logical way of avoiding ecological damage.”

Dr. Robert Hermanowski from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Berlin, Coordination of the central German Internet portal on organic farming

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

Robert Hermanowski: The cultivation of GM plants is associated with the risk that ecosystems may sustain permanent damage. For example, Bt toxin is a protein which is toxic to chewing insects. It is produced by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and used as a biological pest control agent against the European corn borer. In relation to Bt maize, which is resistant to the European corn borer, there are two problem areas: the effect of the Bt toxin on other insects (non-target organisms) and a potential build-up of resistance in the European corn borer. This would result in organic farmers no longer able being to use the Bt toxin as a biological pest control agent.

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

Robert Hermanowski: It is a question of differentiating between irreparable and temporary damage. For example, radioactive contamination is irreparable in terms of human time frames. In the same way, an uncontrolled spread of GM plants, with the potential risk of a harmful impact on the ecosystem through the displacement of wild plants, or the development of resistance, would be an unstoppable process. The potential risk of a worst-case scenario alone must lead to the abandonment of this technology.

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

Robert Hermanowski: Of course ethical, religious and socio-economic concerns must be brought to bear when assessing a new technology. For example we must question whether the crossing of species boundaries in genetic engineering is ethically responsible. From the point of view of organic agriculture, socio-economic risks must also be taken into account. Organic farmers are prohibited by law from using genetic engineering. Consumers expect organic products to be as free as possible from genetically modified components. In this context, genetic engineering is jeopardising the economic basis of organic farmers, since they are reliant on marketing an organic label to achieve higher prices.

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

Robert Hermanowski: From the point of view of organic agriculture, abandoning the use of GM plants would be a logical way of avoiding ecological damage.