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!
FOCUS: If green biotechnology is so beneficial, why hasn’t it gained ground here in Germany?
Nüsslein-Volhard: We have groups like Greenpeace to thank for that: groups that put ideology above everything else — regardless of all the positive results that have been had [with GM crops] in the meanwhile in many countries. As a consequence, green biotechnology is practically a social taboo here.
FOCUS: What are the implications for scientific research?
Nüsslein-Volhard: For theoretical research, there are no consequences. But as soon as it’s a matter of practical applications, things become difficult for the scientists. In Germany, there are practically no positions to be found anymore that would permit them to translate their ideas and research into practice. We do have a biotechnology law, which to some extent makes possible the field experiments that are necessary to gain authorization [for GM crops]. But if the fields are constantly being destroyed and nothing is done about it, then it’s just not possible. Not far from here, at the University of Hohenheim, a whole course had to be canceled because anti-GM militants tore up all the experimental fields. The consequence is that Germany exports exceptionally well-trained scientists to other countries. They don’t see any future for themselves here.
FOCUS: Using the techniques of genetic engineering, German scientists have developed the so-called golden rice. The rice is enriched with vitamin A and it has the potential to spare millions of people in the world’s poorest countries from losing their eyesight. Greenpeace is opposed to the golden rice, because they don’t want people in the Third World to serve as guinea pigs. Do you share this concern?
Nüsslein-Volhard: But that’s total nonsense. The behavior of Greenpeace in this matter is profoundly inhuman! Without a second thought, they are playing with human lives. I’ll give you another example. A few years ago, the Americans sent aid shipments of corn to African countries that were suffering from famine. The corn was genetically modified. In America, everyone eats it (including the German tourist), but the starving Africans were not permitted to eat the corn, because Greenpeace and other groups warned that it was genetically modified. These are unbelievable absurdities. I find it extremely depressing.
FOCUS: Critics of green biotechnologies complain that small farmers in the Third World become dependent on the big agro-industrial firms, which have their newly developed crop strains patented.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Okay, I find this criticism bizarre. As if it is somehow immoral to sell corn kernels as seed. Nobody is giving cars away, after all! The seed for all high-performance crop strains, including those that have not been genetically engineered, is specially produced nowadays, in order to guarantee the maximum yield. It’s just that hardly anyone knows that. The image of the farmer who retains a part of his harvest and replants the kernels the following spring is very romantic, of course. But in the case of corn, for example, such behavior would be totally irrational, since he would then only be able to collect half of the potential yields. But farmers have to try to get as much out of their land as possible. When they don’t manage to do so in an economically efficient fashion, then they need subsidies. Of course, we could pay them such subsidies, in order for them to continue sowing seed that they have themselves harvested. But I don’t find this particularly shrewd.
FOCUS: You’re reputed to be a passionate cook and you’ve even published a cookbook. As a cook, what would you like to see done with biotechnology?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Sometimes I regret the fact that you can’t find certain old-fashioned sorts of fruit in the stores anymore, simply because they spoil too quickly. There are particularly tasty sorts of strawberries or sour cherries, for example, that don’t keep well. You can tell that many types of fruits and vegetables are cultivated for their robustness and the quantity of the yield, but not for their flavor. If it would be possible by using genetic engineering to make the tastier sort of strawberries keep longer, personally I’d have nothing against it. You can’t have everything. But by using genetic engineering you can perhaps have more.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. In 1995, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The above interview first appeared on the German news site Focus-Online. The German version is available here. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.