Science for Progress

Science for Progress

44 Green Biotechnology – with David Spencer

March 16, 2020

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

Listen to the Full Conversation on Patreon!

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.

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.