Science for Progress

because science is fundamental in the 21st century

44 Green Biotechnology – with David Spencer

Dennis’s guest for this episode is David Spencer, a researcher in plant physiology and phytopathology in Germany. In his Ph.D., David uses genetic engineering to fortify soybeans against fungal infection. They explain why we need more resilient crops fast, why this would be great for the environment, and how genetic engineering can help achieve this.

The episode complements the previous one (extended throwback with Hélène Pidon) which focused on explaining different breeding methods and how artificially induced mutations compare to naturally occurring ones.

How can biotechnology make agriculture more environment-friendly?

While wild plants defend themselves against pathogens and insects, our food crops lost their resilience. So, protective measures are needed to ensure yields: pesticides.

When we spray a field with a pesticide, we apply large quantities and it gets everywhere, affecting the wildlife, the soil and the water. But when each plant produces its own insecticide, it applies just the right amount and only where it is needed.

This is why David advocates for using genetic engineering to create crops that have both the high yield of modern crops, and the resilience of their wild relatives. The perfect plants to use in organic farming in the face of climate change and population growth.

What is hindering implementation in the EU?

Of course, breeders and scientists need to test the crops to ensure that they are safe for us and the environment. But the current EU regulations make the approval process so difficult and expensive that only the biggest companies can afford it – and only if large profit margins are to be expected. Public researchers and NGOs who predominantly have the good of the people in mind have no chance. Also, the EU does not allow for genetically altered plants to be tested in the field, preventing tests for environmental impact under realistic conditions.

Not only do these regulations effectively prohibit the development and establishment of environmentally friendly crops with high nutritional value in Europe, but it also causes a ‘brain drain’: researchers are moving to countries with more reasonable regulations.

What’s the flaw in EU regulations?

First of all, for the approval of crops, the EU focuses on production methods instead of the actual safety of the food. The genetically identical plant, if bred through hybridization and crossing, faces lower hurdles, than if it was bred through genetic engineering; Although alterations made using gene editing are predictable and often indistinguishable from even the subtlest naturally occurring mutations, and alterations caused by hybridization are unpredictable and enormous.

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Further, regulators try to draw the line at alterations that ‘could not occur naturally’. But David points out that every imaginable gene alteration happens in nature, all the time.

There are more than 3000 crops in use in the EU that had been created through random mutageneses – such as treatment with radioactivity – decades ago. But, because we have consumed them for generations with no harm, the regulation makes an exception for those.

How does this make sense? Well, it doesn’t.


about Dennis Eckmeier

Dennis founded Science for Progress. He received a PhD in neuroscience in 2010 in Germany. Until 2018 he worked as a postdoc in the USA, and Portugal. In 2017 he co-organized the March for Science in Lisbon, Portugal. Dennis is currently a freelancer.