BMBF discusses the future of biosafety research on genetically modified plants

State Secretary Michael Thielen: “The role of the state is to make provisions for the future.”

On 10 March 2008 scientists involved in research projects funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) gathered in Berlin to present their findings from the previous three years. In addition to scientists, the 130 or so participants included representatives from the fields of politics, industry, the media and associations and other interested parties. The importance of scientific findings in public debate was one of the main topics. The safety of Bt maize and the ‘illusion of certainty’ were also discussed.

Michael Thielen , State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The BMBF has funded 120 biosafety research projects to date.

Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer , from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, showed ways in which society can learn to deal calmly with risk.

Prof. Ingolf Schuphan , RWTH Aachen: The effects of Bt maize on other organisms are very minor and at the limit of detection. Differences between different conventional varieties have a far more significant effect on the occurrence of certain species.

Prof. Francois Buscot, University of Leipzig: trees are very long-lived. The potential transfer of introduced genes to the next generation is therefore particularly significant.

Prof. Reinhard Hehl , University of Braunschweig: the crucial factor determining the safety of a transgenic plant is not the method, but the effect the introduced gene has on the plant.

World café: Debate and discussions about the challenges facing safety research

“Responsibility means balancing the consequences of action and inaction,” said BMBF state secretary Michael Thielen in his opening speech. Failing to act also carried risks, he maintained. Genetically modified plants were already being used throughout the world to make animal feed. And genetically modified products from all over the world could be found on the shelves in Germany too. The role of the state was therefore to make provisions for the future. According to Thielen, this means explaining the importance of this field of research for Germany and providing the right research conditions to make Germany a centre of excellence for agricultural and nutrition research in general and plant biotechnology in particular, and to promote close co-operation between research and application. Providing for the future also means contributing to the safe handling of biotechnological innovations. To achieve this, the potential risks must be examined at an early stage. “Genetically modified plants are the most examined and best understood in the world – we know far less about many non-GM crops and wild plants,” Thielen explained. But rational arguments alone are not enough to convince people: “We must take account of human emotions as well and make greater efforts to address them”. There was no option but to stick to transparency and information and to develop the powers of persuasion of science. “So today we would like to hear your suggestions. We want major initiatives to shape our funding programme.”

BMBF has been investing in GMO safety research since the late eighties and has funded 120 projects up to and including 2007. A further 10 million euros has been made available for biosafety research over the next three years. Scientists at universities and other research institutes are currently working on 24 BMBF-funded projects focusing on the environmental safety of genetically modified plants. Topics range from the effects on beneficial insects and the prevention of undesirable pollen drift to the potential development of pest resistance. Some of the scientific findings were presented at the conference and discussed with the audience.

Perceived risks and the ‘illusion of certainty’

The conference gave the public the opportunity to discuss findings from the BMBF’s key areas of research directly with the scientists involved. At the same time, it allowed a glimpse into the future. Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin provided food for thought in this area. Objective risks deduced from scientific data frequently differ from ‘perceived risks’, i.e. society’s subjective perception of risks. Gigerenzer believes that this can be explained both by a lack of knowledge and an increasing lack of confidence in industry and politicians, but also by the ‘illusion of certainty’. The simple fact that in this world there is no such thing as ‘zero risk’ is neither taught in schools nor clearly communicated by industry and politicians. “We must learn to live with uncertainty,” said Gigerenzer. Transparency and open, honest communication, he maintained, are an essential condition for changing society. “Too many decisions are made behind closed doors”.

In subsequent discussions, the audience contributed two further aspects to this debate: the difference between elected risks such as smoking or driving a car, and risks which individual citizens have no control over, and the fact that personal gain also plays a role in risk perception.

Bt maize – a risk to the environment?

Is the cultivation of genetically modified Bt maize harmful to the environment? Prof. Ingolf Schuphan from RWTH Aachen University shed light on this particularly controversial question. At present MON810 Bt maize is the only genetically modified plant under cultivation in Germany and the EU. It contains a gene from the soil bacterium_Bacillus thuringiensis_(Bt), which confers resistance to the European corn borer. A joint biosafety research association comprising eleven partner projects studied various aspects of potential environmental effects over a three year-period. “Any Bt effects that may exist are random and at the limits of detection”, concluded the group coordinator Schuphan. The most significant effects on non-target organisms were found in conventional maize which had been treated with insecticides. The joint project for the current funding period is concerned mainly with new Bt maize varieties which are resistant to the Western corn rootworm. This pest is now spreading through Europe and was discovered in Germany for the first time in summer 2007.

Genetically modified trees – Can they be safely used in the future?

Prof. Francois Buscot from the University of Leipzig and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig Halle gave an insight into the findings of several working groups which are researching the possible environmental effects of transgenic trees. Unlike maize, genetically modified trees are not yet grown commercially in Europe. Here, special consideration must be given to the risk of introduced genes being passed on to subsequent generations due to the longevity of trees. Researchers are therefore developing methods to prevent this. Buscot regards the use of genetically modified trees for intensive crops, such as fruit growing, site remediation or non-food production as a ‘calculable risk’. Cultivation is of limited duration, the plots of land are well contained and safety measures can be designed and monitored. “However, I would question the need to use transgenic trees in extensive forestry,” says Buscot. A fully functioning forest ecosystem depends not only on interaction with parasites and symbiotes but also on the genetic diversity of the trees. Afforestation with genetically modified plants cannot yet achieve this, although research is moving in this direction. The erosion of biodiversity, however, is not a problem specific to transgenic plants, but to some extent the consequence of unbalanced afforestation and cultures.

New methods - increased safety with transgenic plants?

“Transgenic plants – a safe designer product?” This was the question that Prof. Reinhard Hehl from TU Braunschweig focused on in his talk. The scientist heads a joint project comprising seven partner projects which are investigating how the safety of genetically modified plants can be optimised using molecular-biological methods. In Hehl’s view, plants can now be transformed with far greater precision than was the case just ten years ago. Major advances had been made in removing the controversial marker genes, although these issues, he maintained, are more of a ‘theoretical problem’, since the much discussed transfer of genes to intestinal bacteria was unlikely. “In my opinion these things are not absolutely relevant to safety.” Far more significant is what effect the modified gene has on the plant. And the scientist’s answer to the question he initially asked: “A designer product is only as safe as the gene which I insert into it”. A glimpse into the future of biosafety researchInspired by the motivational speech, all participants then chanced a glimpse into the future of modern biosafety research. Their suggestions were then presented in a plenary session and condensed into three key challenges to biosafety research:

  • greater transparency and target-group-specific communication,
  • broadening the scope to include the agricultural context and
  • increased international focus with regard to knowledge, regulations and information.

In his closing speech, Volker Rieke, head of life sciences at the BMBF, promised to include the results when devising future funding programmes. “Genetic engineering can be properly assessed only on the basis of scientific results. I hope that the initiatives funded by BMBF will help you and us to achieve this”.