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Debate: The future of biosafety research

New plants, new questions?

With the world population growing, the climate changing and resources diminishing, agriculture and plant breeding are facing new challenges. The aim is to breed plants capable of growing in unfavourable conditions or ones that produce new substances. Genetic engineering methods will also play a role in this. What new research topics are being generated by the latest developments? GMO Safety spoke to four experts to find out. The interviews will be published one by one over the coming weeks.

Prof. Urs Niggli, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Frick (Switzerland)
“From an organic farming point of view, I see no need to use transgenic plants.”

Prof. Inge Broer, University of Rostock
“We need to develop a clear, efficient system for analysing new plants.”

Prof. Bernd Müller-Röber, University of Potsdam “Problems can occur even with conventionally bred plants.”

Prof. Daniel Barben, RWTH Aachen University
“The potential consequences and implications of new technologies should be studied in an interdisciplinary manner.”

In 2050 a global population of around nine billion people will need to be fed – an increase of around 50% compared with 2010. However, farmland cannot be increased by the same amount, and fresh water is also becoming more scarce. At the same time, farmers increasingly need to prepare for extreme weather conditions, such as periods of drought. Reserves of oil, phosphorus and potash, which provide the basic materials for synthetic fertilisers, are also running out.

If global agriculture is to be able to meet the needs of a growing world population using as few resources as possible, plant breeding will have to play a part. It is widely accepted that in future we will need plants that are resistant to pests and disease and that can cope with heat, cold, drought and saline soils. However, we will also need plants that can replace the diminishing oil reserves by producing biomass for energy generation or renewable raw materials. There are reservations here though: energy and industrial crops are not allowed to be grown on fields needed for food crops. There is also some controversy about breeding plants with higher levels of certain nutrients in order to prevent deficiencies.

All these traits can be found in plants that exist today – both in plants that have been conventionally bred and in genetically modified plants. In the future too, people will attempt to meet some of the plant-breeding goals with the help of genetic engineering.

What new research topics are being generated by the plant-breeding aims mentioned above? Are there new safety issues for GM plants and perhaps also for conventionally bred plants? What socio-economic issues need to be investigated? And how does one conduct a rational analysis of benefits and risks? GMO Safety spoke to four experts about these issues.

Prof. 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.

Prof. Inge Broer is a biologist and leads the agro-biotechnology research group at the University of Rostock. She has developed numerous GM plants, including a potato that produces a biodegradable plastic, and in the past ten years has conducted biosafety research on GM plants. In 2010 she published a paper on the future of biological safety research.

Prof. Bernd Müller-Röber is a biologist who leads two research groups at the University of Potsdam and at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam-Golm. His main areas of research include plant genome research and growth processes and gene regulation in plants. Among other things, he is Vice-Chairman of the BioEconomyCouncil and Spokesman for the Genetic Engineering working group of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

Prof. Daniel Barben is a political scientist. One of his research topics is social acceptance of technological innovation. In the 1990s he conducted research at the Social Science Research Center Berlin into the acceptance of plant genetic engineering. In 2010, after spending several years conducting research in the USA, where he focused primarily on nanotechnology, he was appointed to the VDI Professorship for Futures Research at RWTH Aachen University.

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