The first combine harvesters roll, the harvest is brought in. Actually much too early if it were a good year. But it is not. The forecast of the German Farmers’ Association for the grain harvest is well below the yield of the previous year and 2023 will also perform below average in a long-term comparison. This is due to the long drought in May and June. The regional precipitation of the past two weeks came too late.
Now you can say with a shrug of the shoulders: There are good years like 2022 and bad ones. But it is not that simple with regard to German and European agriculture. If you look at the whole picture of where our food comes and will come from, the worries crease on your forehead: The drought periods in Europe are more likely to increase than decrease due to climate change. Many floors are already at their limit and don’t give much anymore. Farmers, more and more of whom are under economic pressure, are getting attractive offers to fill areas with solar systems instead of growing crops on them. And the EU wants the use of pesticides to be reduced by 50 percent by 2030.
How should we be satisfied in the future?
So how are we supposed to be satisfied in the future? For many scientists and representatives of the chemical industry, the answer is clear: genetic engineering. The technical terms are genome editing or CRISPR-Cas9, also known as gene scissors or molecular scalpel. Genes are modified in a targeted manner and plants become more resistant to heat, drought or even harmful pathogens. However, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture in the EU is only possible under certain conditions. Fans of genetic engineering believe that opportunities are being wasted here. Critics are afraid of health consequences. There has been a bitter dispute for years.
Now there is movement in the deadlock. The EU Commission presented a draft law on Wednesday that is intended to make the use of genetic engineering in agriculture much easier. Specifically, foods obtained from genetically modified plants are to be sold in the EU without labelling. This also applies to foods produced elsewhere in the world where genetic engineering does not have such a mixed reputation.
“Gene-edited plants” are ideal for meeting the future
According to the majority of scientists, “gene-edited plants”, as it is called in technical jargon, are ideal for meeting the tough demands of the future. Higher yields with less pesticide pollution, that’s the promise. For this purpose, the DNA of plants is modified in the laboratories, which in principle also occurs naturally and can lead to the same results. The demand for needed plants is huge. There should then no longer be any possibility for individual countries to issue cultivation bans. Only organic farmers have to keep their hands off the seeds, which are labeled accordingly.
Now this is also attracting companies in the EU, such as Bayer, but also European research and farmers, a business that has long since made it big in the USA and Japan. There is talk of a potential of 30 billion euros. China will also soon release genetic engineering. If the law gets through, it would be a change of era, especially for Germany. In our fields, genetically modified plants were about as popular as Schalke flags in the Dortmund fan block. The traffic light government in Berlin will probably not take it lightly with its assessment of the EU law. Because the Greens are against genetic engineering, the FDP for it.
The first opponents of genetic engineering are positioning themselves
This is important because the EU countries have to agree to the law. Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) is open. The German Farmers’ Association is also in favor of using gene editing. The Federal Environment Ministry, which is governed by the Greens, has not yet commented. However, the party program clearly states that Crispr technology should not be allowed in the way the EU intends. Organic farmers, consumer advocates, well-known faces like Sarah Wiener and environmental organizations like BUND are taking a stand against the EU law.
What could mitigate the dispute is the following supposed detail, which is likely to be of crucial importance: Gene editing, as provided for in the EU law, is something significantly different from classic genetic engineering. Foreign genes are inserted into the plant. When editing genes with the gene scissors Crispr, precise interventions are made in the DNA of the plant. Researchers are doing more or less what evolution would do anyway – only faster and more precisely. Despite this enormous difference, both principles have so far been given the same legal status. This 30-year-old regulation is considered outdated and no longer proportionate. The need for change is also undisputed, i.e. that all previous measures can no longer cover the income from agriculture.
With the law, the EU also wants to stop the enormous brain drain
Bayer and BASF therefore conduct their research in the USA. With the new law, they could promote jobs and innovations again from Germany. This would mean that Europe would no longer run the risk of being dependent on other countries and research there. In addition, the continent is losing many capable researchers to countries where genetic engineering is permitted. The EU also wants to stop this enormous brain drain with the new law.
This also applies to the dilemma in which many ecologists find themselves. Those who demonize genetic engineering are doing the fight against climate change a disservice. More robust plants are considered in science and now also in the EU as “a possible instrument to increase sustainability”, as the draft law literally says. Because they need significantly less chemical pesticides.
What will remain is the dispute over security. Greenpeace, for example, believes that the consequences of interfering with the genome of plants are unforeseeable. New toxins could be created. Scientific institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina consider the technology to be harmless to health after 30 years of safety research. The decisive factor will probably be what the majority of Germans think and how they express themselves in the polls, which will now be piling up. It wouldn’t be the first time that emotional perspectives beat scientific arguments. It is important that the existing, decades-old regulation, which appears Stone Age in view of the new research results, is discussed again. This debate is now open.