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Results of BMBF-funded biosafety research into GM crops

“The environmental effects identified fall within the spectrum for conventional varieties.”

Another funding period for biological safety research into genetically modified plants has come to an end. On 30 March 2011 the results of the completed research projects were presented to more than 150 participants from the fields of science, politics, industry, associations, the media and the interested public. The meeting in Berlin also discussed the contribution of the sciences to a culture of risk dialogue.

Dr Henk van Liempt, Head of Bio-Economy at the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF): “The challenges – and opportunities – of GM plant research are a part of Germany’s national BioEconomy 2030 research strategy. The German government is pursuing the aim of a resource-efficient, sustainable, biobased economy.”

Dr Stefan Rauschen, RWTH Aachen University: “Only field trials let us thoroughly investigate and assess ecological interactions under realistic farming conditions.”

Prof. Inge Broer, University of Rostock: “When plants are used as a production platform for pharmaceuticals or industrial raw materials, they do not necessarily need a different or more stringent risk analysis.”

Prof. Joachim Schiemann, Julius Kühn Institute, Quedlinburg: “The BMBF-funded biosafety research included the further development and testing of biological containment systems. These are designed to prevent certain GM plants from spreading unintentionally.”

Dr Stephan Schleissing, ttn Institute (Technology, Theology and Natural Sciences Institute), Munich: “An in-depth interdisciplinary understanding of risk can help clarify the different expectations of plant genetic engineering and people’s opposition to it.”

Open Space:: In the afternoon, eight groups held lively discussions on different topics suggested by individual participants. The subjects included the independence of science, the future orientation of biological safety research and the controversial ‘socioeconomic criteria’ that states and regions may be able to use to justify cultivation bans on GM crops.

The conference was opened by Henk van Liempt, Head of Bio-Economy at the BMBF. He placed biosafety research into GM crops in the context of the national BioEconomy 2030 research strategy adopted by the German government last autumn. The strategy pursues the vision of a sustainable, biobased economy that carries with it the promise of global food supplies that are both ample and healthy, and of high-quality products from renewable resources. Crops – and ambitious research and plant-breeding programmes – are an important part of this strategy. Van Liempt emphasised that the BMBF is open to technology, but that there are limits to conventional plant-breeding methods. The BMBF sees great potential in plant genetic engineering, but perceives a need to be able to assess the potential results and consequences of the technology. For the German government, funding independent safety research into GM crops is therefore “part of acting responsibly in the interests of human, animal and environmental safety.”

GM maize with three Bt proteins: Cumulative effects?

Stefan Rauschen of RWTH Aachen University presented the results of a network of eight research teams investigating the potential environmental impacts of a GM maize variety that produces three different Bt protein targeting the European corn borer and Western corn rootworm. This Bt maize was compared with a number of conventional maize varieties.

Rauschen was able to demonstrate, using the results of several individual research projects, that the environmental effects measured for the Bt maize variant fall within the spectrum found for the conventional varieties studied. For instance, this held true for the composition of micro-organism communities in the soil and the species composition of insects found in maize fields. Some non-target organisms like nematodess and butterflies and moths are affected by the Bt proteins in laboratory experiments, but in the field the non-target organisms are exposed to much lower levels of Bt protein, which are far below the threshold that triggers harmful effects. The claim that the effects of the three Bt proteins could overlap or that their combined impact could be more powerful was not confirmed in any of the research projects.

One of Rauschen’s conclusions was that the environmental effects of GM plants must always be evaluated in terms of the natural variability of the agricultural ecosystem, which can be high. Future research projects must therefore place a greater emphasis on recording the varietal effects of conventionally bred lines.

New developments in plant research: new questions for biosafety?

Inge Broer from the University of Rostock addressed the growing importance of plants as a production platform for pharmaceuticals and industrial raw materials. As with all other GM plants, potential risks depend on the combination of the crop plant in question and the gene inserted into it. Risk assessments need to start from science-based cause-effect hypotheses and focus on a plausible potential harmful effect. As an example, Inge Broer presented research on a potato that produces cyanophycin, a biodegradable polymer. A potential risk associated with the cultivation of these potatoes is that the breakdown of cyanophycin could change the nutrient levels in the soil and the composition of the soil-dwelling micro-organism communities. It is also conceivable that the potatoes could survive longer in the soil as a result of their modified carbohydrate levels and could germinate the following year. Both of these potential risks have been researched in detail, but no evidence has been found.

Biological containment of new genes

Joachim Schiemann of the Julius Kühn Institute in Quedlinburg presented a number of projects that are developing biocontainment methods – methods designed to biologically confine transgenes. Containment systems are needed where transgenic plants are likely to have harmful impacts on health or the environment, and where production systems and commodity flows need to be segregated. The BMBF-funded projects pursued a number of different strategies, including plastid transformation, eliminating the transgene from the pollen, and using plants with flowers that do not open. Two projects also focused on targeted integration of genes in the plant genome. Considerable progress was made in all projects, but none of the methods is ready for practical application yet.

“In a pluralistic society, one cannot have rules about how biosafety research is to be interpreted.”

However clear and well-founded the results of biosafety research may be, they are not really able to dispel people’s reservations in the public debate about plant genetic engineering. In his motivational speech, Stephan Schleissing, Managing Director of the Institut Technik-Theologie-Naturwissenschaften (ttn) at LMU Munich University and Science and Technology Commissioner of the Lutheran Church in Bavaria, explored the contribution of the sciences to a culture of risk dialogue.

Schleissing made it clear how much the debate about plant genetic engineering is shaped by conflicts of knowledge, values and interests. For this reason, acceptance levels for the results of scientific safety research depend on social, legal and ethical factors. Schleissing argued in favour of an “in-depth interdisciplinary understanding of risk” that can help clarify the different expectations of plant genetic engineering and people’s opposition to it. He also addressed the current debate about the socioeconomic criteria that are to be used to justify national cultivation bans on GM plants. Assessments based on these kinds of criteria should not, in his view, form part of approval decisions. “As an interdisciplinary scientific concept, research into socioeconomic risks falls between biological safety research and political consulting.”

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