In minute 37, Timo Faltus provides a guide to fraud: Combining new tools of genetic engineering with known breeding methods, it is no longer possible to prove that you have produced a genetically modified organism. The plant can be grown on German farms without risk assessment and sold without labeling in supermarkets.
The lawyer and biologist of the University of Halle-Wittenberg presented the fraud instructions earlier this week to the Committee for Food and Agriculture of the Bundestag. The FDP and the Greens had made requests there on the question of whether the strict German genetic engineering law should be changed. The Greens are against it. The FDP wants to facilitate the cultivation of genetically modified plants in Germany.
It proposes to evaluate crops based on their characteristics rather than the methods used to produce them. "We need an open and fair dialogue about the opportunities of new biotechnological methods," said the FDP deputy and vice-chair of the Committee Carina Konrad. In the committee meeting the parties of the Bundestag could ask questions to invited experts and representatives of interests.
Genetically modified plants have long been part of our everyday lives
The fact that genetic engineering is again an issue in this country is due to a new technology, the development of so-called gene scissors – the most well-known example being Crispr-Cas. The special feature: With the tools, changes can be incorporated into plants, which are also produced in conventional breeding. "It is important that we realize that this is not about deregulating genetic engineering as a whole, but about a special case," explained expert Faltus.
The sticking point are so-called punk mutations. In breeding plants, these changes of individual bases in the DNA have been produced for decades with mutagen-damaging radiation or chemicals. The genotype of the plants changes randomly in thousands of places. Due to a special provision in the law, the organisms may still be grown and sold in Germany without special risk assessment and labeling.
New genetic engineering tools such as Crispr-Cas can also be used to create point mutations – but specifically at specific locations in the plant heritage. Plants with such changes are considered as genetically modified organisms under EU law. This was clarified by the European Court of Justice in July 2018. The crops must undergo a rigorous and expensive risk assessment and be labeled commercially as genetically modified.
Easy to crack genetic engineering law
This can be circumvented by first inserting a mutation into a plant with Crispr and then irradiating it. After that, no one can prove which point mutations were caused by the gene scissors. "You can then simply say that all the mutations came from the irradiation and would not have to mark the plant as genetically modified," explains Faltus. With his example he wanted to show how easy it is to bypass the current genetic engineering law.
Critics do not want to get involved in this argument. Tade Matthias Spranger, adjunct professor at the University of Bonn, said that it was not crucial for the legal system to prove fraud. He referred to the precautionary principle that it always applies when a person intervenes, regardless of whether one can prove his intervention later.
Renowned for his genetic engineering position, organic farmer Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein criticized the fact that the new technology would be touted with the same promises as conventional genetic engineering. That makes him suspicious, if it is really something new. It is clear that neither the climate crisis nor the hunger or the biodiversity crisis can be combated with the help of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering could facilitate crop protection in organic agriculture
"Nobody in science claims that we solve the hunger problem," said biologist Stephan Clemens, professor at the Department of Plant Physiology at the University of Bayreuth. "What we promote is that we can provide additional opportunities to contribute to the solution." Researchers hope to use Crispr to develop new varieties that better withstand pests or extreme weather.
Clemens disrupts that in the debate about genetic engineering it is often an "either-or-go", one does not have to decide at all. Modern genetic engineering is suitable both as part of organic farming and conventional agriculture. Thus, the technology could help to improve plant protection in organic farms and reduce the use of environmentally harmful copper (read more here).
precautionary principle meant for him that it had to weigh up which risks of a technique could occur with what probability, according to Clemens, and what consequences it could have in comparison to abandoning a technique. "We must state that the current practice is not evidence-based and ignores the state of science."