Biotech Opponents Are Playing with Human Lives

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.