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Debate: The future of biosafety research

“From an organic farming point of view, I see no need to use transgenic plants.”

Prof. Dr. Urs Niggli is an agronomist who specialized in weed control until the end of the 1980s. He has been Director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Frick, Switzerland, since 1990. Among other things, he is a member of the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) Senate Commission on Substances and Resources in Agriculture and a member of the Advisory Council of the Johann Heinrich von Thünen Institute.

GMO Safety: In your view, what will be the main challenges for plant breeding over the next ten years? What is the outlook from the point of view of plant breeding for organic farming?

Urs Niggli: The main challenges for plant breeding are surely in those areas where resources will be limited in future. These include water supply, but also nutrients. Phosphorus and potash levels will be exhausted in forty to sixty years and nitrogen will become unaffordable for agriculture as oil prices rise. More efficient use of these nutrients, and synchronising plant growth and nutrient uptake with the mineralization of organic bound nutrients are important issues for organic farmers because they use only organic fertilisers. However, these issues will also become important for conventional farmers because they too will increasingly have to go back to closed cycles. Resistance or increased tolerance to disease and pests is also important, as is the plants’ ability to compete against weeds, i.e. the ability to cover the ground rapidly and to overshadow and compete with weeds, because organic farmers do not use herbicides.

GMO Safety: Let us take one example. How does organic plant breeding approach the target of more efficient water usage or drought tolerance?

Urs Niggli: Basically, we have a two-pronged strategy for water supply, tackling it both through the farming system and through plant breeding. I find this two-pronged approach to the problem very important because we can make an incredible contribution towards ensuring that water can be stored and used more efficiently through e.g. the accumulation of soil organic matter, soil fertility and crop rotation, but also through landscape planning measures. Varied crop rotation alone lets us use water much more efficiently because of the different root levels of the different crops, while closed crop canopies prevent the soil drying out – there are very practical measures that are being shamefully neglected in conventional farming. The second strategy is breeding for efficient water use, where classic breeding methods are being totally underrated. This was shown during the research conducted by Marianne Bänziger at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and Nairobi, which used classic breeding methods to achieve a massive increase in the yield potential of maize, even under very arid conditions. The ability to use water efficiently is probably relatively complex in genetic terms, which means that progress can be achieved very efficiently using classic breeding methods. From an organic farming point of view, I see absolutely no need to use transgenic plants for this.

GMO Safety: Do you think that plants bred using conventional methods could also cause biosafety problems, for instance if a new trait, such as drought tolerance or faster growth, were to outcross to wild relatives, which would then have a local advantage over other wild plants?

Urs Niggli: The issue of risks resulting from outcrossing becomes more critical for completely new gene constructs. But conventional breeding has also resulted in the outcrossing of specially selected traits to wild plants over thousands of years. In most cases, the new traits were recessive in the wild plants, i.e. they often failed to take hold in nature. I am not playing down the constant impact of agricultural plant breeding activities on natural ecosystems, but I do differentiate clearly between that and genetic engineering, which entails greater risks and which must be given special attention in terms of biosafety research.

For instance, we are restrictive even when approving organic crop protectants. Predatory insects that are not native to an ecosystem are not approved for organic farming. Last time we had problems with the Asian ladybird, which is very invasive in Europe and was accidentally released into the environment in France by scientists at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). However, FiBL did not approve it and joined forces with the industry to promote the breeding of native ladybirds.

GMO Safety: What are your expectations of future biosafety research on genetically modified plants?

Urs Niggli: No technology has been as closely attended by safety research as genetic engineering. There is much criticism of the fact that incredible sums of money have been invested in it and the question is whether this is really necessary. This was also discussed at the round table with Annette Schavan. However, looking at the recent research on fungus-resistant wheat at the University of Zurich carried out as part of the Swiss National Research Programme NFP59, we see, firstly, that the transgenic plants behaved very differently in the greenhouse than in the field and, secondly, that entirely unexpected side effects occurred, such as lower yields or increased ergot infection and, thirdly, that it is not only the sequence of the transgene that plays a role, but that the insertion site also affects transgene expression. This shows that scientists are assuming a level of certainty in dealing with genetic engineering that is not actually present, and that greater effort is still required in biosafety research. The question is, is it actually possible to identify such unexpected side effects in all cases? For instance, the fact that there was a problem with ergot was observed more by chance – no one had thought at the planning stage to investigate this issue. This makes biosafety research very expensive and very difficult, but also extremely necessary.

GMO Safety: The issue of whether it is possible to cover all unexpected side effects in advance holds true for every technology and also applies to conventionally bred plants with new traits, whether they produce new substances, grow faster or provide biomass. Shouldn’t accompanying research or biosafety research be investigating potential side effects here too?

Urs Niggli: It is true that this applies to all technologies. For me the issue of whether an unexpected negative impact – even one with a low probability – can be reversed continues to be a decisive factor. And there is a big question mark over that with living and self-propagating organisms.

I am not a zero-risk person by any means. I think we have to take risks to secure food supplies. But when I weigh up the risks and benefits, the benefits of genetic engineering are relatively small so far when compared with the potential risks. And when I see the huge advances that have been made with classic breeding methods – for instance in apple breeding, where we now have forty of fifty apple varieties worldwide that have been made resistant to apple scab through classic breeding methods, or in terms of efficient water consumption – the benefits are currently much higher than the potential risk. So let’s be intelligent about where we invest our research resources!

The main shortcomings of biosafety research today are in the area of impacts of GM plants on cultivation systems and under different climatic and site conditions. What changes are to be expected in farming practice? Does drought tolerance go hand in hand with a higher need for mineral nutrients, as is known to be the case with herbicide tolerance? Is the plant’s competitive ability reduced and is there a need for more crop protection? Does the plant need less water, or does it find water from other places, thereby becoming a competitor to other crops and drying out the soil? Does this have an impact on crop rotation?

Unfortunately, most GMO developers do not know much about agriculture. However, I also see that these complex investigations are expensive and could become an insurmountable hurdle for genetic engineering.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us

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