The German Federal Government is planning to expand agricultural research. But to what end? Two adversaries debate shortages, genetic engineering and long-term thinking.
© partagasnr4 - Photocase.comDIE ZEIT: German agricultural research has been shamefully neglected; in the autumn the Federal Government plans to present a new strategy. What is your ideal of future agriculture?
Reinhard F. Hüttl: It will certainly go far beyond farming and animal husbandry in the future. Climate change in particular is presenting us with immense challenges; we need biomass as a replacement for fossil fuels. Prosperity is increasing worldwide, and with it the demand for higher quality foodstuffs. We must use existing arable land more effectively. The answer: bio economy.
Urs Niggli: But the real change is that after decades of abundance we are becoming aware of new shortages; shortages in energy, in water, in soils, which are enhanced by climate change. Protecting our natural resources, as we have always done in organic farming, must be given precedence. Bio economy on the other hand continues to emphasise short-term competitiveness.
Hüttl: That is too limited a view. Our concept is mainly based on long-term value creation perspectives, and there can be no bio economy without sustainability. We will also address the resource issue.
DIE ZEIT: How harmonious - are you so warmly agreed?
Niggli: In our analysis, yes; everyone is conducting their research under the premise of sustainability nowadays. Agricultural practice however is putting ever greater pressure on ecosystems. This is what research will be measured by. I am becoming increasingly impatient in this respect.
Hüttl: Scientific advancements have at least already reduced pollution. We today conduct precision agriculture with low-impact machinery and a more targeted use of fertilisers. This has allowed yields to continue to increase while reducing pressure on resources. And we will need increased yields if, in addition to producing energy plants and biomass for the chemical industry, we hope to feed nine billion people in the year 2050, all of whom want to eat a variety of foods.
Niggli: It's not these nine billion people who will be causing the ecological disaster, but the up to 30 billion farm animals that will be needed to supply eggs, milk and meat in the year 2050.
Hüttl: But unfortunately we cannot rely on a change in eating habits - especially when we ourselves are hardly role models in this respect. That's why we should invest more money in research and development in the EU than in agricultural subsidies.
Niggli: But there will never be a technology that can make 30 billion farm animals environmentally friendly! Scientists must finally start respecting the limits that our planet places on environmental impact, and think in ecological systems. We have to work together across disciplines, and involve farmers and specialists who are active in the fields. Instead we continue to conduct highly specialised work in individual disciplines.
Hüttl: To expect every researcher to understand the full context is simply not realistic. And more importantly: we know far too little about the systems within which you want to operate. Think of the forest decline 25 years ago. Back then it was claimed to be a pollutant problem, the ground acidifying. Only later did it become clear that desulphurisation plants and catalysts were only part of the solution; that we also had to ecologically stabilise the forest through more deciduous trees. We owe the necessary knowledge about material cycles to specialisation. I believe in method development. We have to examine things in depth.
Niggli: I'm not advocating superficiality! I'm trying to bring together the depth of modern research methods and horizontal networking between subjects. Specialists have to talk to each other, institutions must join forces. Even if it costs more.
Hüttl: We started doing that a long time ago. The agricultural faculties in Rostock, Berlin and Halle are cooperating, as are a wide range of disciplines in Munich and Hohenheim. And we soil scientists from approximately 50 research institutions now plan to jointly find out whether Germany's soils emit CO2 or store it.
Niggli: But so much more has to change! Breeding research still concentrates on creating plants that provide high yields on excellent soils with abundant fertilisation. But the food plants of the future will have to get by on less nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, and water, and cope with alternating stresses from wet and dry conditions. Environmental scientists are describing future scenarios like this, but only the few ecological breeding initiatives are responding.
DIE ZEIT: Could you be a little more specific?
Niggli: Take for example ploughless tillage, which is currently being advanced worldwide. It only works using more nitrogen fertiliser, with a total herbicide against weeds and with genetically modified soy or maize plants that are resistant to that herbicide. The nutrients from animal husbandry cannot be returned to these fields, which are never opened up, so they over-fertilise the meadows and ultimately the oceans.
Hüttl: It is simply no longer true to say that such issues are not being examined. Climate protection, the ability of soils to retain water, there are research projects on all these things, and the BioEconomy Council is also taking up the topic of animal husbandry. Nobody is falling back behind the paradigms of sustainability.
Niggli: But we're not working sustainably! And research today often develops genetic engineering based solutions that weaken ecosystems, so it even becomes counter-productive.
DIE ZEIT: Attitudes towards genetic engineering remain entrenched despite the fact that developments have moved forward. For example with a potato that has been genetically made resistant to phytophthora, the cause of potato rot. The gene came from a wild potato, farmers no longer have to spray pesticides - what exactly is wrong with that, Mr Niggli?
Niggli: Disease-resistant varieties of potatoes, vines or apples have been around for 30 years, thanks to traditional breeding. But retail isn't interested in properties like these, and consumers are not informed. At least in Switzerland a third of all organic apples on the market is scab-resistant. So why wait for the promises of genetic engineering?
DIE ZEIT: So there are other ways - but what are the arguments against genetic engineering?
Niggli: It isn't just controversial because researchers and environmental fundamentalists are engaged in ideological warfare. Intense discussions are also taking place within the discipline, and as long as this debate does not lead to satisfying compromises, I won't take the risk. Personally, I am not militantly opposed to genetic engineering, and results from molecular biology are always being integrated into organic farming. There are so many "smart" applications for the latest research that I see no necessity to immediately take genetic engineering to the fields.
Hüttl: There is no need for us - but elsewhere in the world there is! One billion people are starving, two billion are suffering from malnutrition. Sustainability also has an ethical aspect; we have to take responsibility. Of course weighing up interests in genetic engineering is important, I agree with you there. At 5% of recommendations it plays no significant role in the expert assessments of the BioEconomy Council, but on a global scale we should examine this technology.
DIE ZEIT: That is what the BioEconomy Council was already urging in its first recommendations, and the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina and the German Research Foundation have demanded more openness towards genetic engineering in much the same terms. Apparently it is an important topic from a scientific policy point of view.
Hüttl: Not in the BioEconomy Council. It's more the public debate that is extensive. I can live with sometimes being shunted into a drawer for some positions. Thankfully science has a lot of staying power. That we as a technical engineering academy focus more strongly on topics such as biotechnology is only logical. Germany is a high-tech location. We are competing with countries like France, the Netherlands or the USA.
DIE ZEIT: One reason for the criticism levelled at the BioEconomy Council is that in addition to scientists, chemical and plant protection companies wield a lot of influence. One blog critical of genetic engineering railed that the Federal Government is funding its own industrial and genetic engineering lobby to the tune of two million euros.
Hüttl: It wasn't the government who instituted the BioEconomy Council, it was acatech, the German Academy of Science and Engineering ...
DIE ZEIT: ... which the Federal Government employs as an advisor and financially supports.
Hüttl: The Government only provides a third of its funding. One third comes from donations, a further third is project-funded. As the only national academy in Germany at the time of its founding we wanted the greatest possible independence. And the representatives of BASF or RWE are not invited as lobbyists for their companies, but ad personam as researchers. And anyway: developing technology without industry makes no sense. Businesses conduct two thirds of the research carried out in Germany. Yes, their aim is profit. But methodically their work is no different from ours.
DIE ZEIT: Critics however say that the BioEconomy Council lacks organic farmers, fishermen, forest wardens, environmental protection campaigners, development experts and consumers. And previous experience with nuclear energy or genetic engineering shows: first scientists advance technologies, then tedious decades-long acceptance debates follow. Why not involve other sections of society from the outset?
Hüttl: I believe that acatech has succeeded in representatively covering the areas relevant to bio economy. Organic farming contributes a single-digit percentage of agricultural value creation in Germany, and accounts for less than 5% of foodstuffs. Folkhard Isermeyer, one of the fathers of the promotional programmes for ecological agriculture, represents this subject with a seat and a vote. We also co-operate with the German Ethics Council, the German Advisory Council on Global Change, the German Advisory Council on the Environment and the German Council for Sustainable Development. In the autumn we will present our programme; then the discussion will continue. We want a programme that learns.
Niggli: Nonetheless: the entire bio economy approach is aimed only at cramming technologies into new products that make our industry more competitive. I prefer to invest in the minds of farmers who operate sustainably.
Hüttl: Technology-based innovations can also improve production methods in organic farming, for example by providing substitutes for the copper-based pesticides that are commonly used today. New technologies can particularly help those who are excluded from the competition, small-scale farmers in Asia and Africa.
Niggli: World hunger can be combated equally successfully in other ways. Where small-scale farmers are starving, organic farming with legumes, compost, biological pesticides and local seeds can bring enormous increases in yield. Why then should they buy expensive seeds from Syngenta or Monsanto? We need a far greater diversity of solution approaches.
Hüttl: Nobody is disagreeing with that. A wide range of solutions is in fact our main approach.
DIE ZEIT: Mr Niggli, you have described organic farming as an "innovation driver". That sounds paradoxical to many ears.
Niggli: That's the crux of public perception: genetic engineering is considered an innovation - organic farming is not. It reminds me of medicine: we know that prevention should be the most important thing, but it isn't sexy. In agriculture too, more research must be conducted into prevention: How do we make farming and animal husbandry systems robust and responsive? How can they be made productive without consuming other ecosystem resources? The agricultural scientists of the future have to say: we are increasing yields, but not at the expense of soil fertility, environmental diversity or the quality of the landscape, but instead by improving all these as well. Then we would no longer have to worry about the bees as pollinators. Organic farming defines productivity not only as yield, but also as output in ecosystem services. That's innovative! We don't just need food to survive, we also need functioning ecosystems.
DIE ZEIT: But organic farming uses more arable land than conventional farming.
Niggli: Significant increases in yield are still possible. From our collaboration with seed breeding company KWS for example we know that if we select varieties intended for organic farming on conventional sites with high levels of fertilisation, we often lose successful characteristics. If we select these varieties under organic conditions, we see a more rapid increase in yield.
Hüttl: The BioEconomy Council also deals with the function of resources, their complex regulation mechanisms and the limits where damage begins to occur. But this is precisely my objection as a scientist, and I mean it very seriously: you are insinuating that we already know what the sustainability of ecosystems is and how we can permanently preserve it. But I believe that we are far from this point, and that we have to think more dynamically. There are so many unanswered questions regarding systems such as soil or climate change. These can only be answered with meticulous scientific work, not with philosophy or ideology. That is why we should continue to develop all technologies. We have to stay flexible.
DIE ZEIT: Monocultures such as in the USA, to which high-tech usually leads due to its high costs, are anything but flexible.
Hüttl: We don't want those any more either. We advocate higher yield stability through different products in the same field. This is an area where we are taking cues from developing countries and organic farming. We want to examine the overall outcomes of systems which use little agricultural chemistry.
Niggli: Now you're usurping my topics! But said does not mean done...
Hüttl: We have to remain open in all directions. If I as a scientist become so wedded to an idea that I can no longer discard it despite changing evidence, I am no longer a scientist. We researchers cannot simultaneously be users. That responsibility lies with the decision-makers.
From DIE ZEIT :: 08.07.2010
1. December 2016
University of Bath
23. November 2016
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main