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Scientists call for genetic scissors in organic farming

by Leo Frühschütz (comments: 0)

Genetic engineering
The scientists argue that the genetic scissors could be used to develop more robust plants. © iStock / Vchal

In a joint paper, scientists from several countries have argued in favour of allowing new genetic engineering methods such as Crispr/Cas in organic farming. The authors of the study justify this as follows: "With the help of genetic scissors, for example, more robust plants can be developed that also deliver high yields with less fertiliser and pesticides. One example is plants with higher drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency."

Many laboratories also use CrisprCas to develop more disease- and pest-resistant plants. Such sustainable plants are also interesting for organic farming, the scientists argue. Especially in the case of fungal diseases, against which organic farmers are only allowed to use copper-containing agents that are "particularly toxic for soil, water and mammals".

Organic agriculture needs too much space

The scientists are critical of the EU's plan to expand organic farming to 25 percent. Because of the lower yields, "more organic farming in the EU would lead to an expansion of arable land elsewhere in the world" to feed EU citizens. "This could easily result in environmental costs that exceed local environmental benefits in the EU, because the conversion of natural land into arable land is one of the biggest drivers of global climate change and species loss," explained co-author Matin Qaim, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Göttingen. For him, the combination of organic farming and new biotechnological methods represents a way to resolve this dilemma.

However, Qaim and his colleagues admit that this would require legal changes at the EU level, for which there is "certainly no political majority at present". But "perhaps improved communication can gradually lead to greater social openness, at least to the gene shears", hopes Kai Purnhagen, professor of food law at the University of Bayreuth.

Comment: Skilfully done

Actually, the report from the University of Bayreuth does not contain any news: The claims of genetic engineering advocates about what great and safe plants can be bred with Crisr/Cas to save the world have long been known. The same goes for the arguments repeatedly put forward about the use of copper and the amount of land needed for organic farming. Both have been discussed extensively for years. The fact that the university's statement was nevertheless widely quoted in the trade press is due to the Niggli effect: combine genetic engineering and organic farming in the headline and you are sure to attract attention. The organic sector rightly did not react to this, because that would only have increased the attention. Leo Frühschütz


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