(November 8th, 2013) Customers are afraid of genetically modified plants - and scientists (not just molecular biologists!) are clueless when it comes to deal with this anxiety. This was the bleak reality at the 6th Green Biotechnology Congress in Zurich.
"For us farmers it is not critical what scientists say, for us it is important what our customers say. If according to opinion polls over half of our paying customers see genetically modified plants as a personal threat to their lives, all our alarm bells ring. That has nothing to do with emotions but with a neat market study," explained Markus Ritter at the 6th Green Biotechnology Congress (6. Fachtagung zur Grünen Gentechnik) held in Zurich on September 6th. Ritter is an organic farmer, president of the Swiss Farmers Association and politician for the Christian Democratic People's Party. Ritter played a crucial role in prolonging the Swiss temporary ban (moratorium) on the cultivation of genetically modified crops. As one of the few non-scientists at the congress, Ritter gave the most succinct summary of the situation we are facing today.
Another non-scientist, Rudolf Marti, director of the Swiss association of animal feed producers presented the other side of the story: "Every day I hear people talking of 'GMO-free' Switzerland. I have to say this is a legend. The farmer association has to stop repeating this legend." Switzerland has a self-sufficiency of 60 percent. Animals abroad of which meat, eggs and other products are imported are fed on GM-soya. Marti quite rightly said: "Both, scientists and producers of animal feed alike have a communication problem." Later he added: "When I watch TV and I see the advertisements for organic food of our retail stores, it tears me apart."
This is the reality that all the interesting projects on the usefulness of genetic engineering in plants presented at the congress have to face: be it the early flowering to speed up breeding of apple varieties (Andrea Patocchi, research station Agroscope Changins-Wädenswil), drought and heat resistance (Uwe Sonnewald, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg), new ways of combating potato blight (Phytophthora infestans; Thomas Hebeisen, research station Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon) or the increased yield of classic herbicide-tolerant sugar beets (Anja Matzk, KWS).
Although nearly everyone agreed on the communication problem, a solution is not in sight. According to Heinz Bonfadelli, Professor at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich, there is not a single reason to explain the lack of acceptance among the public. Well-informed, highly educated people with an affinity to technology are generally in favour of GM-plants whereas environmentally sensitive people who do not trust scientists are against it. Christian Hardtke, Professor for Molecular Plant Biology at the University of Lausanne, was annoyed by the factual misinformation of biology students in his courses. It is not just him: "My colleagues cannot be bothered any more to argue with students about it."
The solutions offered were meagre: more money for communication and a different but not further specified kind of communication. Once again it is up to the schools to educate young people to make up their own minds based on facts rather than on what everyone else is saying. At the moment there is not much hope that this will happen. Patrick Matthias, Professor for Epigenetics at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basle said: "When we organise our open day of genetic research, we always see the same group of teachers."
Read more about the future of agrobiotechnology in Europe in the current issue of Lab Times.
Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Petr Kratochvil