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Debate: The public discussion surrounding plant genetic engineering

“The central problem is the mixing of scientific and political arguments.”

Plant (‘green’) genetic engineering is still perceived in the first place as a risk. Although scientists have been conducting biological safety research for years, the belief that possible consequences for the environment of genetically modified plants have not been researched is widespread. While politicians reinforce this attitude, the voice of scientists in the public debate is almost inaudible. GMO Safety spoke to Karl-Heinz Kogel, a biologist and agricultural scientist at the University of Giessen, about this. Kogel has taken a very active part in the public discussions about his release trial with GM barley.

Dr Karl-Heinz Kogel , Professor of Plant diseases and Plant Protection at the Institute of Phytopathology and Applied Zoology (IPAZ) and Vice President of the University of Giessen.

Trial field with GM barley, Giessen 2006. The trial field on the university site was partially destroyed in 2006 and is now guarded. Despite the destruction, initial results of the risk assessment of transgenic cereal have been obtained, which must now be verified in field experiments over several years. Kogel has faced his critics and explained his experiment at numerous events.

There was also fierce debate surrounding cultivation trials with GM maize which were conducted by the Institute of Plant Breeding of the University of Giessen together with the Federal Office of Plant Varieties as part of the legally prescribed cultivar authorisation. Despite a majority of Giessen town council being against the project, the university saw no scientific grounds for breaking off the experiment. As Vice President of the university, Kogel was partially responsible for this decision.

GMO Safety: Your own release trial with GM barley triggered fierce public criticism last year. There were protests and attempts by anti-GMO activists to destroy the crops. You have always tried to enter into debate with the public – have you managed to make a difference?

Karl-Heinz Kogel: The coverage in the local press was very objective and we have also had positive reactions from local politicians. Giessen city council even pronounced itself unanimously in favour of our biological safety experiments, although at the same time clearly rejecting the varietal experiments with Bt maize that are also being conducted at our university. The decisive factor in this case was that people perceived commercial motives.

GMO Safety: Is the fact that the public tolerates your experiments with GM barley at least a result of your active involvement?

Karl-Heinz Kogel: Our trial is specifically designed to identify potential risks of plant genetic engineering. We have succeeded in putting this objective across. Then when radical genetic engineering opponents announced that they were going to destroy our trial, it caused people to close ranks in solidarity, especially at the university. There was also clear support from the scientific organisations, such as the DFG (German Research Foundation), and from many scientists in other countries. But parts of the trial were still destroyed – by a small group of “field liberators”, who trampled on the plants in front of the camera. They made a really big thing of it, in order to demonstrate their rejection of the political system. This was an interesting experience: the more radical the opposition, the less it probably has to do with biological issues or risk aspects of genetic engineering.

However, the overall positive public response to our experiment was almost certainly due to the fact that we spent a very, very long time explaining that what we are doing here is independent biosafety research paid for with tax-payers’ money. We have organised dozens of events here in Giessen. I have been to schools, I’ve spoken to members of parliament and our student union. My experience is clear: the more open, detailed and concrete our arguments as scientists, the more clearly people will recognise potential benefits of this technology and, above all, the more realistically they will perceive potential risks.

“We must be patient in persuading people.”

GMO Safety: In an interview with GMO Safety, Wolfgang van den Daele argued that scientists cannot influence public opinion at all because the rejection of plant genetic engineering is not based on rational arguments, but is rather symbolic of certain fundamental political/ideological attitudes.

Karl-Heinz Kogel: From a historical point of view, the introduction of new “revolutionary” technologies always encounters mistrust and fear to start with – and this is even more true of green genetic engineering because we are dealing with food and health. The scepticism we face is an expression of an explicable – even necessary – defence mechanism, which also makes sense from a biological evolution perspective. For us scientists that means that we have to show that the technology that we want to introduce has great benefits – and make these benefits understandable. Only then, I believe, can one really convince the public. Our task is to persuade people, constantly and with a lot of patience.

GMO Safety: So where do you see a benefit of plant biotechnology that can be convincingly communicated to society?

Karl-Heinz Kogel: In my view, a key aim is still to overcome starvation and to develop better-quality crops. Genetic engineering will play a role here in future, particularly with regard to the requirement for sustainability. I see even greater potential when it comes to reducing the consequences of climate change, particularly in the area of renewable energy sources and renewable raw materials. If you take a look at current basic research, there are lots of early signs of convincing solutions.

We must also make clear the possible consequences and risks of not acting. In this part of the world, for instance, the ecological assessment for renewable raw materials is not good – one of the procedures that would be suitable for developing more efficient crops adapted to the production process is biotechnology. Today people think that they can do without this technology without restrictions. But if, as is already the case in the field of medicine, it becomes clear what disadvantages are linked to not using green genetic engineering, public opinion will change.

GMO Safety: There is no debate about benefits in society though – only a debate about risk. In addition, scientists – particularly those involved in serious safety research – play almost no role in this debate.

Karl-Heinz Kogel: This is the central problem. The risk assessment of genetically modified plants is not scientifically based – it is decided at the political level. This mixing of political and scientific arguments makes the discussion much more difficult – including here in Giessen.

A recent example is the BVL’s notification of a temporary sales ban on MON810 Bt maize. This is to all intents and purposes a political decision that one has to accept as a citizen. But I find the justification given for it (a threat to the environment) abominable. From a scientific point of view this does not stand up to substantial analysis. If you analyse the relevant publications up to 2007 carefully, you will see that no risks to humans, animals or plants have been found, and certainly none that exceed the normal level of conventionally bred plants. There are no plants in the world, and hardly any chemicals, that have been investigated more thoroughly than Bt maize or the Bt toxin. The biological safety research programme that the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has been funding for years to the tune of several million euros, has supplied answers to most of the risk questions. But these are not taken into account. This is a serious technical error.

As an expert in biological plant protection with many publications in this area, I must also say that the consequences of this line of argumentation have hardly been thought through. If the Bt toxin really represents a risk – such as accumulation in the soil or activity on non-target organisms – then the classic Bt preparations would have to be checked as a matter of urgency. These have been used for decades in organic farming as biological pesticides. They are, with reason, regarded as environmentally compatible and conducive to sustainable farming. The mechanism of action of Bt toxin has been investigated down to molecular level. So we have to ask: does the mode of action of an active substance depend on the prevailing political world view in agriculture?

“A kind of political biology has emerged.”

GMO Safety: What are the consequences of this? Shouldn’t scientists take a greater part in the public debate? We often have the impression that scientists and their expertise are hardly represented – leaving the field to the politicians.

Karl-Heinz Kogel: This is our experience here in Giessen too. Although the University of Giessen has a strong focus on life sciences, only a few colleagues take part in the public discussion. What puts many of them off is this mixing of political and scientific arguments. People reject plant genetic engineering because they give priority to organic farming – that is perfectly okay. But when this political will looks for a biological justification you get hair-raising statements: suddenly all plants outcross, bees are dying because of genetic engineering and here in the Wetterau region cows are dying because they have eaten Bt maize. A type of political biology has emerged. If you hear this kind of thing all the time and, as a scientist find that you can hardly put anything straight, then many colleagues see no point in taking part in public debates. They think, often wrongly, that the time spent is disproportionate to the benefit. I see the problem too with more and more scientists withdrawing from public debate, but I haven’t yet found a solution.

GMO Safety: Isn’t there also a fundamental problem here? What are the long-term consequences if serious scientific findings are dominated by politics, as often seems to happen at the moment?

Karl-Heinz Kogel: Despite the polarisation, I am in favour of calm discussion. We should continue to look at the opportunities of green genetic engineering. The critical factor is that this discussion must remain science-based. Political decisions should be clearly labelled as such and should not be given apparently rational justifications by distorting basic biological knowledge. That would help a lot. If this doesn’t happen, politicians risk losing people’s trust – and not only among scientists.

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