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The Future Lies in The Fields

Interview: Andreas Sentker

We will need green genetic engineering, says BASF director Stefan Marcinowski - for a growing world population and for energy supply.

The future lies in the fields© BASFDr. Stefan Marcinowski, Member of the Board of Executive Directors at BASF
DIE ZEIT: The EU in Brussels is possibly about to approve the cultivation of the genetically modified potato Amflora. But the Commission has already postponed the date twice, most recently to 31st March. Do you think they will meet the deadline this time?

STEFAN MARCINOWSKI: Good things come in threes. As far as we know, it should be possible to meet this deadline. But I won't believe it until the assessment is actually published.

DIE ZEIT: But the Commission doesn't necessarily have to agree, even if the assessment by the European Food Safety Authority EFSA declares the potato safe.

MARCINOWSKI: As there was no qualified majority for or against its authorisation last spring, the decision now lies with the responsible Commissioner, Stavros Dimas. He is entitled to approve the authorisation, or, if he has doubts, whether scientifically justified or not, to initiate a new assessment process. He has exercised this right. However, the Commission already assured us last May that it intends to continue to base its decisions on science and trusts the high quality of scientific advice from EFSA.

DIE ZEIT: But it is precisely this quality that critics of genetic engineering doubt.

MARCINOWSKI: What bothers me is that political circles were already casting doubt on the competence and professionalism of EFSA before it had even gone through the authorisation process for genetically modified plants set out by the EU for the first time. So far, the cultivation of only one plant has been authorised in Europe, that's Monsanto's Mon810 maize, while in the USA 70 plants have been approved.

DIE ZEIT: So Amflora is more than just a potato.

MARCINOWSKI: It's a litmus test of the outlook for green genetic engineering in Germany and Europe.

DIE ZEIT: That outlook is apparently not good. In a meeting of the 27 EU Environment Ministers, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel voted against forcing Austria and Hungary to repeal their ban on cultivating Mon810.

MARCINOWSKI: Yes, he gave surprisingly nationalistic and protectionist reasons for this: he said it was not Europe's job to support an American genetic engineering company. None of those arguments apply to the potato. It's a product the European starch industry wants. It's a product that has been developed in Europe. And it is intended to be used in Europe.

DIE ZEIT: Federal Minister of Agriculture Ilse Aigner has lately also opposed genetic engineering. Bavarian CSU Environment Minister Markus Söder wants to declare the whole of Bavaria a genetic engineering free zone. Along with Austria and Hungary, Greece and France have also banned the cultivation of Mon810. Do you feel that the mood is increasingly turning against green genetic engineering?

MARCINOWSKI: If you take a look at the archives and read what Ms Aigner said about genetic engineering when she was still a member of the research policy committee, you will find a far more positive attitude. And when food prices went up last year and the tortilla crisis caused upheaval in Mexico, Haiti and other regions, we also saw more positive attitudes towards genetic engineering. Now many old arguments are being trotted out again, among them unfortunately also many that from a scientific point of view are simply incorrect.

DIE ZEIT: For example?

MARCINOWSKI: Like many others, Beate Jessel, President of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, has quoted an Austrian study according to which mice fed genetically modified maize were less fertile in the third generation. This despite the fact that this study is known to have been incorrectly designed. Nonetheless people continue to happily disseminate it, creating fear and distrust. At the same time, spreading incorrect scientific data undermines the authority of the European regulatory agency EFSA, which is apparently expected to review incorrect arguments again and again until it arrives at the politically desired result. We also hear complaints from EFSA about attempts to politically influence the outcome of the scientific assessment process.

DIE ZEIT: It seems as if some politicians are open to economic and scientific arguments in non-election phases, but not during election periods.

MARCINOWSKI: As long as its usefulness cannot be directly demonstrated to consumers, green genetic engineering remains a pawn of the political powers. Consumers are presented with overflowing supermarket shelves and can choose between cereals in red or green packaging. They see no gap between supply and demand that genetic engineering would be required to fill.

DIE ZEIT: So what do we need it for?

MARCINOWSKI: The gap does exist, and it is widening. Humanity will grow to nine billion. Over 70% of potable water is already being used for agriculture. We eat more water than we drink. We need more renewable, biologically based energy. All this can only be achieved through an increase in agricultural productivity. The combination of breeding, fertilisers, expanding the area used for farming and agricultural technologies has brought us an average increase in productivity of 1.6% a year over the past 20 years.

DIE ZEIT: And that is no longer sufficient?

MARCINOWSKI: Looking at the mega-trends in population development, food supply, and energy supply, we will have to double agricultural productivity in the next 20 to 30 years, an increase of 1.6% will not be enough. We cannot endlessly expand the amount of land used for farming; we need a new green revolution. That's why it's so disastrous for us to discredit green genetic engineering in times of apparent abundance. The genie we're letting out of the bottle here will be hard to get back in.

DIE ZEIT: Customers in Germany apparently don't want genetic engineering on the supermarket shelves.

MARCINOWSKI: If they are constantly being told how dangerous it is, and at the same time that there is no apparent benefit to them, this dislike will increase.

DIE ZEIT: But the benefit to the consumer of the products that exist so far is indeed barely apparent.

MARCINOWSKI: The products will come. Oils with valuable components, disease-resistant potatoes that are not contaminated with fungicides. These are scientifically highly sophisticated products that have not just had a gene for an enzyme inserted. This is why development takes longer when you have to build entire metabolism chains into plants. BASF has invested one billion euros into plant biotechnology in the past ten years, and has so far seen no significant returns from this area. We are well aware that we need a lot of stamina here.

DIE ZEIT: There were heavy protests against genetic engineering based insulin production in Germany. The market has developed worldwide - but not in Germany. Do you foresee a similar fate for green genetic engineering?

MARCINOWSKI: There is no doubt whatsoever that this technology will take its course. Eleven years ago there was no cultivation of genetically modified plants, in 2008 they were growing on 125 million hectares, that's more agricultural land than we have in Europe. The market has been growing at an above-average rate and in the two-digit range for years, especially in North and South America and in Asia. While we mainly spent our time first extensively researching the possible risks, others conquered the markets. This is how Germany previously lost its title as the world's pharmacy too.

DIE ZEIT: Monsanto, the world's leading corporation in the field of green genetic engineering, is seen by many as industrialised evil, a ruthless monopolist.

MARCINOWSKI: The debate is very emotionally charged. This affects not only companies like Monsanto, with whom we have a highly successful research cooperation, but also individual researchers and managers in companies and their families, who find themselves subjected to personal attacks.

DIE ZEIT: What drives this emotion?

MARCINOWSKI: When teachers lead their pupils on pilgrimages to squatted fields to show them the virtues of civil disobedience, when the militant destruction of fields is barely prosecuted, this society clearly cannot muster the scientific, the political or the moral will to engage in factual discourse here. By closing ourselves off from this development in Europe as a matter of principle we are promoting precisely the predominance of a small number of companies and dependence on their seed that critics lament. Preventing competition promotes the creation of monopolies.

DIE ZEIT: But the competition from the USA and Asia is also threatening to overtake us scientifically.

MARCINOWSKI: The scientific foundations of the industrialisation of green biotechnology were laid here in Europe, in Ghent and in Cologne; this is where the breakthroughs were achieved. But how are you supposed to conduct top-flight research if you always have to worry that your research field will be trampled?

DIE ZEIT: The Federal Ministry of the Environment openly sympathises with these critics of genetic engineering in a letter.

MARCINOWSKI: First of all, this letter too spread arguments that were quite simply scientifically incorrect. Militant enemies of genetic engineering were addressed as "fellow campaigners" by the Federal Ministry of the Environment - I cannot stand for that.

DIE ZEIT: You have criticised that field destructions are treated as trivial offences in Germany.

MARCINOWSKI: Imagine if my neighbour were strongly opposed to cars and took a hammer to my MOT inspected and registered vehicle one night. And then declared this work of destruction to merely have been the free expression of his opposition to cars. Field destructions are damage to property which sometimes destroys the results of years of research. Trivialising these attacks or declaring them a virtue of civil disobedience is unacceptable.

DIE ZEIT: Critics claim they reflect the opinion of wide ranges of the population.

MARCINOWSKI: If you ask whether genetic engineering on the dinner plate would be acceptable to them if it meant significantly lower food prices, the majority of Germans say yes, according to an Emnid survey. So there doesn't appear to be a fundamental ideological hurdle.

DIE ZEIT: But shouldn't you take the fears about the risks seriously?

MARCINOWSKI: Let's take the example of Amflora: potatoes do not procreate through pollen flight. Potatoes have no wild relatives. Amflora is not intended for consumption, but to supply starch to the industry.

DIE ZEIT: Nonetheless you have also requested its authorisation as a feed- and foodstuff. Why?

MARCINOWSKI: Mashing residue from starch production is often used as feed. And it is necessary to test that the potato is not harmful to humans because you can never fully guarantee that it will not be mixed in with table potatoes. We don't intend to sell the potato at farmers' markets, but we also cannot exclude criminal energies that may even lead to intentional mixing with table potatoes in order to discredit the technology.

DIE ZEIT: Is EFSA in a position to make qualified statements on risk? It has no funds to conduct its own research, but is dependent on, among other things, the data supplied by applicants.

MARCINOWSKI: Authorisation agencies elsewhere are not tasked with conducting their own research either. They test whether data is complete and coherent, just as when approving medicines. No authorisation procedure anywhere in the world is more thorough than that in Europe, and no plants are more thoroughly examined than those that have been genetically modified.

DIE ZEIT: But EFSA is accused of being too industry-friendly.

MARCINOWSKI: Surely we should first complete the authorisation procedure for the first genetically modified plant from European research before we dismantle it again. One thing is of course uncomfortable for politicians: science cannot make the decision for them. In the end there must and will be a political decision on whether the signal for green genetic engineering in Europe is set to green or red.

From DIE ZEIT :: 19.03.2009