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Nature Biotechnology Journals

Auf Wiedersehen, Agbiotech

Henry I Miller

1.The Hoover Institution, 434 Galvez Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-6010, USA.
e-mail: miller@hoover.stanford.edu

Recombinant DNA technology, or genetic modification (GM), applied to agriculture has yielded a cornucopia of grains, fruits and vegetables that are resistant to disease, salt or drought, display enhanced nutritional content or produce higher yield with lower chemical input and environmental impact. And yet, many countries have treated recombinant DNA technology shabbily and inappropriately. Debilitating overregulation, which prevails worldwide, has prevented the wider diffusion of the technology; politicians, legislators and supermarket chains have stigmatized transgenic products through gratuitous regulatory requirements, labeling schemes or boycotts; and activists have ripped up field trials of transgenic plants, destroying experiments that would better characterize the risks and benefits of new varieties.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Europe, where in Switzerland the system of oversight now singles out genetic modification protocols for futile and risible discussions of the impact of the technology on plants' 'existence' and 'dignity'. And across the border in Germany, the institutions that are meant to uphold the principles of intellectual openness and exchange are now capitulating to the demands and threats of activists and organizations ideologically opposed to experiments with recombinant DNA-modified plants, curtailing the academic freedom of their faculty and students.

The new and bizarre wrinkle introduced in Switzerland­which has completely banned the cultivation of any recombinant DNA-modified plants through at least 2010­is a federal constitution that prohibits violations of the 'dignity' of plants. (When I first learned of this, I assumed it was a belated April Fools spoof.) According to a recent analysis by Switzerland's Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, recombinant DNA modifications may eventually be permissible, as long as plants' "reproductive ability and adaptive ability are ensured" and they do not "lose their independence." In addition, "social-ethical limits on the genetic modification of plants may exist"­meaning, presumably, no modification would be permitted that shortens a plant's life, makes its petals an ugly color or otherwise prevents it from leading a rich and fulfilling existence.

A more serious problem is the destruction of experiments by activists. In France 1 <http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v26/n9/full/#B1>  and Germany, in particular, small-scale field trials conducted by researchers at universities and research institutes regularly have been vandalized by activists, even though most of these investigations were studying the environmental safety of growing recombinant DNA-modified plants in normal agricultural environments. A few scientists have continued to pursue their research in the face of this adversity­despite a lackadaisical approach from criminal-justice systems­but the coup de grâce may now have been administered by the recent decision of two German universities to prohibit field trials of recombinant DNA-modified crops.

In April, the rector and external advisory board of Nürtingen-Geislingen University "urgently recommended" that a faculty member terminate his field trials, which had begun in 1996, on insect-resistant and fungus-resistant recombinant DNA-modified corn. The university's rector, economist Werner Ziegler, was quoted as saying "We have always been very critical of this kind of research....Lately things got out of control. There were e-mail attacks, vandalism, intimidation and personal threats" 2 <http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v26/n9/full/#B2> .

Also in April, the Justus Liebig University announced that it would stop its planned initiation of two small field trials of insect-resistant recombinant DNA-modified corn after protests by activists and local politicians 2 <http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v26/n9/full/#B2> . Both trials had been approved by the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety and were to be conducted on behalf of the national authority for agriculture variety and seed affairs. "I am not happy at all with this decision," said Stefan Hormuth, the university president. "Unfortunately, we were no longer able to deal with the massive opposition from politicians and the general public. The university has a reputation in the region that we cannot risk losing."

Let me see whether I have this right: German universities maintain their reputations by curtailing the academic freedom of their faculty and students in the face of demands and threats from ideological bigots?

Germany is the only country in which the universities­which are normally refuges dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and to the freedom to perform legitimate research­have fully capitulated to hoodlums. One might expect such deplorable, dastardly behavior in Russia or Sudan, but in a major Western democracy it is inexcusable.

Along with France, Germany has experienced consistent and violent vandalism of field trial sites. But the appropriate response is not to ban the research. Would British, Canadian or US universities even have considered banning research using animals in response to threats, intimidation and violence by 'animal rights' demonstrators?

This capitulation to the vilest sort of antiacademic and antisocial behavior is grotesque and has dire implications. Violent, antitechnology, antisocial activists of all sorts will now smell blood. If German universities continue along this path of circumscribing a kind of Entartete Forschung, 'degenerate research', and allowing persecution of practitioners of certain intellectual approaches, such as the use of the most precise and predictable techniques for genetic modification, the stridency and absolutism of the activists' pronouncements­and their violent tendencies­will only increase. It is not hard to draw parallels with some of the excesses of intellectual persecution in the 1930s, when the regime's objections to Entartete Kunst, or 'degenerate art', drove out such great minds and innovators as Albert Einstein, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso. Those who ignore the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them.

But Herr Hormuth has a different take on Germany's past. In an e-mail to me, he wrote: "If we look at history then we should have also learned that we have to act responsibly with the results and possibilities of scientific research and are accountable to society." A quite extraordinary statement. Given the existing achievements of recombinant DNA-modified plants­economic benefits to farmers, less use of chemical pesticides, more environment-friendly farming practices­he appears to have a peculiar view of what constitutes acting "responsibly with the results and possibilities of scientific research" and being accountable to society. Could anyone argue seriously that delaying or abandoning a demonstrably safe technology that is environmentally friendly and enhances food (and potentially, biofuel) production is beneficial to society?

This time around, the German government is not directly culpable for the current situation, but it certainly has failed to protect freedom of expression and the personal safety and property of plant scientists against assaults by anti-technology activists. (In the United States, such groups have been officially designated as terrorist organizations.) How have we arrived at a position in the 21st century where thugs and vandals dictate the research and syllabus of the academic institutions of a major Western European democracy?

One reason is that policy makers in both the European Union (EU) and in individual European countries like Germany have consciously and purposefully chosen not to apply scientific and risk-based regulatory policies to the oversight of recombinant DNA-modified plants. Flying in the face of the scientific consensus ­including the EU's own risk assessments­ current EU and national regulations cast a veil of suspicion over agbiotech by requiring case-by-case government environmental assessments for field testing with recombinant DNA-modified plants. In contrast, plants with similar or even identical traits that were created with less precise techniques, such as hybridization or mutagenesis, are subject to no government scrutiny or requirements (or publicity or vandalism) at all. And that applies even to the numerous new plant varieties that result from 'wide crosses' with embryo rescue, hybridizations that move genes from one species or genus to another; that is, across what used to be thought of as natural breeding boundaries.

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