The German publication Greenpeace Magazin interviewed Urs Niggli, the director of FiBL, a leading research institute on organic agriculture. In his opinion genome editing is going to be useful and edited crops should not be classified as GMOs but assessed on a case by case basis. The text below by Frauke Ladleif was translated and posted with the kind permission of Greenpeace Magazin/Hamburg.
GREEPNEACE MAGAZINE: New techniques are revolutionizing genetic research, as they allow extremely precise changes to the genome, which are very similar to those obtained by conventional breeding. This so-called genetic surgery changes the debate about the risks and benefits of interventions in the genome. The director of the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Urs Niggli, hopes for a differentiated view of the new method. Mr Niggli, there is a debate going on about a new form of “green genetic engineering” as it was called for example at a joint symposium held by the Ethics Council, the German Research Foundation and the National Academy Leopoldina. The debate is focused on the so-called CRISPR method, where an enzyme targets a spot in the genome and cuts the DNA there. The natural mechanisms of the cell then automatically repair the strand. What could be done with this procedure?
URS NIGGLI: The technology is only known since 2013. However there are already new varieties of wheat, maize, millet, rice and tomato and more are coming. The path from basic research to application is therefore extraordinarily short. In US and China these new varieties are approaching the market. For farmers – including organic farmers – the new method opens up many opportunities, i.e. plants better suited to difficult environmental conditions, such as drought, soil dampness or salinity. The fine root architecture could be improved, so that roots absorb more nutrients such as phosphorus or nitrogen from the soil. Tolerance or resistance to disease and pests, storage and quality of food and feed could also be improved. Critics like to dismiss these possibilities as empty promises. I think these are obvious ecological improvements, which can reduce serious problems in conventional agriculture.
Do you see any risks?
The small changes caused by CRISPR in the plant genes cannot be distinguished from spontaneous or natural mutations and science assumes that they are not risky. The situation is different when foreign material is introduced or when the purpose is to eradicate entire animal populations, for example malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Risk assessment should be therefore differentiated.
In Europe it is currently being hotly debated whether the new breeding method is genetic engineering and should therefore fall under the same rules. Should the law be updated?
According to the law, a plant is genetically modified when new properties are added which would not be achievable by natural breeding. However CRISPR is different. It is a technique which can generate specific mutations in plants. This changes the characteristics of a plant without introducing new genes, unlike the “old” genetic engineering. Manipulation is therefore identical to a natural process. Critics argue that if a mutation is achieved by a technical procedure, then it is genetic engineering and must fall under the related law, and be strictly regulated. Scientists, on the other hand, emphasize that there are already exceptions which are not regulated by the law, for example the generation of mutations by irradiation or chemical treatment. The question is whether CRISPR also falls under these exceptions.
Should crops edited with CRISPR obey rigorous rules? Does the precautionary principle being in force in Europe apply as well as the licensing and labeling requirements?
Yes precaution is important, as it is transparency towards consumers. But it should be valued differently. Some CRISPR varieties are not a problem and should be subject to less complex rules than plants which have been heavily manipulated, but they should obviously be tested and monitored in the long-term, in agreement with the precautionary principle . I strongly advocate a case-by-case approach and I am against a general demonization of the new genetic techniques.
It sounds like you are arguing with environmental and organic farming associations who generally reject these precise interventions on the DNA of plants. As everybody knows organic farming rules out technical interventions into the genome, unless they occur by natural breeding.
I think the new breeding trend is amazing, because our society needs alternatives, especially when essential resources such as seeds are concerned. Even if a genetically modified crop does not differ from a traditionally bred plant, critics see undesirable or unexpected effects as a potential risk, but this can happen with any breeding method. Moreover, there is a justified fear that with super-plants the biodiversity of crops will be further reduced . However, the main worry for organic farming is the likely loss of trust among consumers: they may get scared if told that methods of genetic engineering are used. I’m much more technology-friendly, but I take these concerns seriously. I agree that conventional agriculture should undertake serious actions toward real sustainability. We will emerge from the lack of confidence only when both sides move.
Last year you were attacked because of your position by the organic farming association “saat:gut”. In a letter to the FiBL Foundation Board, you were accused of harming the bio sector. Have you reconciled?
We still have very different views. Of course I also support bio breeders, whenever possible. Our institute invests a great amount of money in bio research because it is important to see the potential of this alternative. But I also care about the ecological problems of German farmers, which are 91% conventional. There is therefore the very possibility of not always be aligned.
(For the picture see this report by FiBL)