There is a specter haunting Europe: the specter of genetically modified foods. Although regularly consumed in the U.S. and around the world, in Europe GM foods are the target of veritable scare campaigns by environmental pressure groups and in the media. As a consequence, even GM crops that have been formally approved by the European Commission are the subject of increasing restrictions in Germany, France, and other European countries. GM crops — including such as have been planted merely for experimental purposes — are regularly destroyed by anti-GM militants in acts of would-be “civil disobedience.” Till Behrend of the German weekly Focus spoke with the geneticist and Nobel Prize laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard about the sources of biotech-phobia.
FOCUS: Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, farmers all around the world are cultivating genetically modified crops on an ever larger scale. But many Germans appear to be afraid of the new technology. Are they right to be?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Well, we Germans are always afraid of new things. But what are these people actually afraid about? They’re afraid that they will assimilate alien genes while eating genetically modified foods. But that’s nonsense. The genes are digested, broken down, and eliminated from the body just like in the case of traditional foods. This has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt. The human genome is sequential and you can examine whether there are any cow genes or plant genes in there. Have no fear: there aren’t any.
FOCUS: What distinguishes, then, classically bred crops from genetically modified crops?
Nüsslein-Volhard: People seem to be unaware that practically all the grains and vegetables that we eat nowadays have been highly genetically modified as compared to their natural forms. There’s hardly any crop as artificial as a potato. In the wild, potatoes are tiny and highly poisonous. It took thousands of generations to turn the potato into a decent sort of food. In contrast to the classical development of new plant strains, “green” biotechnology has the advantage that with its help one can proceed much faster and in a much more targeted fashion.
FOCUS: It’s true that for plant breeders that might be a fine thing. But lots of people want to do what’s right for nature and for themselves, and consequently they insist on “organic” products.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Given our level of material well-being and the fertility of our soil, we can afford to do that. But actually that’s a snobby, elitist attitude. Organic farming cannot feed large cities. And it certainly cannot feed the world’s population. It’s not possible, since the yields of organic farming are too small and the area one has to plant is way too much. It really makes more sense to use the particularly rich fields that we have intensively and in a sustainable manner by planting high-yield crops. The environment benefits, too, since then we can return other fields to their natural state.
FOCUS: Nonetheless, organic farming is thought to stand for a more respectful treatment of the environment.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Wrongly. Or do you imagine perhaps that organic farming can do without the spraying of pesticides? On organic farms, too, one sprays pesticides constantly and all over the place! In this respect, genetic engineering really has more intelligent solutions to offer. For example, with the help of genetic engineering we can make corn or cotton that is resistant to insect damage. If we incorporate a particular gene, they become poisonous for harmful insects, but not for humans or for mice. Then you can do without the insecticide. I find this rather smart. There are also strains being developed that grow with less water or that grow on salt-affected soils. It’s both sophisticated and ecologically beneficial!