Genetic engineering: The power of genes

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Genetic engineering: The power of genes
Genetic engineering: The power of genes

The Power of Genes

The anti-slush tomato was a flop, and wine made from genetically modified grapes didn't even come onto the market. Corporations that allow genetic engineering to flow into their food have to reckon with a drop in sales. Nevertheless, green genetic engineering is considered an economic shining light. What's going on?


The volunteer field liberators are on their way. The "initiative of farmers and beekeepers", as it calls itself, has declared war on the cultivation of genetically modified plants - civil disobedience under the motto: "Gendreck weg". The first fields have already been devastated, "genetic fields" declared outlawed. Politicians and the affected farmers are appalled, but the list of sympathizers on the initiative's website is long.

The quarrel about green genetic engineering, which wants to improve plants with genetic tricks, is in full swing. Critics warn of dangers to nature and people, while supporters consider the risks to be manageable and call for better funding so that Germany does not fall behind in global development.

From super tomato to weed killer

What is it about? The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences wants to provide an overview. For three years, researchers have been observing developments in genetic engineering in Germany and worldwide in a monitoring project. The first inventory was recently published.

This clearly shows that the priorities of genetic engineers have changed over time. Ten years ago, genetically modified vegetables were supposed to taste better and look prettier. The first commercially available result of the research efforts was the FlavrSavr tomato, which earned dubious fame in Germany as an "anti-slush tomato". Created as a particularly firm fruit that ripened longer and was therefore supposed to be more aromatic, it was launched in the USA in 1994 - and immediately attracted the hatred of critics of genetic engineering. The reason: it contained genes for antibiotic resistance. There was great fear that this resistance could be transferred to bacteria and the drugs would become ineffective.

Instead of better taste, today's genetic engineers dream of hardy crops that are not affected by drought, s alt or harmful insects. Above all, however, they should become resistant to herbicides in order to simplify the handling of plant toxins against weeds.

"Most plants with modified genomes that are on the market today are those with herbicide tolerance or insect resistance," explains Bernd Müller-Röber, molecular biologist and co-author of the Berlin study. 61 percent of all applications for outdoor cultivation related to plants with herbicide tolerance.

Gen plants know no borders

However, especially the bestseller herbicide resistance could have devastating effects on the environment, criticizes Greenpeace's Swati Jangle in a policy paper against genetic engineering: In the USA, where at least 60 percent of all genetically modified plants thrive, the weeds are now also against the Plant protection products immune. As a result, ever more and ever stronger toxins would have to be used – to the detriment of the environment. "This can also happen with conventional plants," Müller-Röber counters such fears.

And what about the main argument of the critics of genetic engineering? "GM crops don't respect field boundaries," writes Jangle. Once in the wild, they spread uncontrollably. Will actions like "Gendreck weg" soon become nonsensical because then all of nature would have to be eradicated?

The genetic engineering report is reassuring. In 2004, transgenic plants were growing on just five percent of the cultivated land worldwide. In Europe, the number of cultivated areas is marginal, only Spain uses transgenic maize in agriculture - the horror scenarios of the critics are correspondingly unrealistic.

No differences?

The study tries to soften the monster image of the transgenic plants. Müller-Röber: "Scientists are largely in agreement that there are no fundamental differences in behavior between a conventional and a genetically engineered plant. It is true for every plant that its genes can be crossed out, for example via pollen transfer."


In addition, you can't lump all manipulated plants together. Bt maize, for example, which has a toxic effect on certain insects due to the installation of a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, is unlikely to spread in our latitudes, unlike rapeseed plants, simply because it lacks a suitable outcrossing partner in the local plant population. Unlike transgenic rapeseed: in the USA, the coexistence of conventional and manipulated rapeseed has failed.

Rigid Testing

Nevertheless, the report states that the negative effects of green genetic engineering feared by the critics have not yet materialized. Bt plants would not have wiped out thousands of useful insects, nor would there be an increased risk of genetically modified foods triggering allergies. After all, according to author Müller-Röber, it is not without reason that there are strict control bodies before a product is launched on the market.

"Extensive investigations are being carried out," explains the scientist. "It is checked whether the new proteins introduced into the plants trigger allergies and how they behave in a simulated gastrointestinal fluid. This is followed by feeding experiments." However, these are not mandatory.

It remains controversial whether the mixing of genes could have negative effects – i.e. whether their manipulation causes significant differences. But what is significant? Who defines what a negative impact is? The scientists, who depend on research funds, or the consumers, the majority of whom are against genetic engineering on their own plates? This is where perhaps the most significant gulf between opponents and advocates of green genetic engineering becomes apparent: their position in the market.

Good Deals

Consumers are increasingly afraid that they will no longer be able to decide for themselves whether genetically modified products end up on their own kitchen counters. According to the Berlin report, only about twenty percent would like to eat genetically modified products at all - almost ninety percent demand labeling of genetically modified foods. Press reports of seeds of genetically modified plants being sown by mistake in German fields are fueling the fears even more. It is currently undeclared zucchini seeds that have been used in Rhineland-Palatinate - this is the third case this year.

Moreover, critics like Sangle fear dependencies: "By patenting seeds, corporations are trying to gain a monopoly over agricultural production and nutrition," she says. Developments in Argentina seem to confirm their views. According to the Berlin report, the soy grown there is almost completely genetically modified, and the cultivation of transgenic soy is also steadily increasing in Brazil. The main supplier: the genetic engineering company Monsanto, which supplies the right plant poison with its modified seeds. According to a report in the daily newspaper, Brazilian politicians have now given up: "The train has probably left the train for soya."

The figures in the Berlin report also show that green genetic engineering can be used for business: In the USA, biotechnology companies generated sales of 33.6 billion US dollars in 2002, an increase in sales compared to the previous year by 13.5 percent. Almost 200,000 people worked in this area.

The customer, a king

While the demand for products from American and other genetic engineering companies is high in other countries, the interest of farmers in Germany remains low. Only seventeen percent of farmers said they wanted to buy genetically modified seeds, and even fewer farmers wanted to feed their animals with them.


Quite low interest given the proclaimed importance of the new "green" market. Nevertheless, the scientists are convinced of the benefits of their innovative products. Genetic engineers are currently pinning their hopes on Golden Rice, in which a maize gene provides additional beta carotene. As a miracle cure rich in vitamins, it should one day protect against hunger and malnutrition.

The example of the fruit that started it all in 1994 shows how quickly dreams of genetically modified super plants can burst: The FlavrSavr tomato was soon taken off the market again – because it simply flopped. Customers didn't like it any better, and its anti-mud properties were also limited.

It is possible that the battle for green genetic engineering will not be decided in the fields, but in front of the refrigerated shelves. The only question is how long consumers will still be able to make this decision.

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