Greenpeace and the matter of facts
Greenpeace has been fighting bitterly against green genetic engineering for decades. SWR Wissen investigated why the environmental campaign organisation has become so entrenched in the issue and detached itself from scientific evidence. In the case of "Golden Rice", the consequences are particularly glaring. But alarmism also threatens to block important innovations in new breeding methods.
Tuesday, October 31, 2023
In a 45-minute programme, SWR-Wissen explores the question of why the organisation, once known for spectacular chain actions on oil platforms or ship blockades, turned to green genetic engineering a few decades ago. And why they proceeded extremely aggressively and systematically destroyed experimental fields with genetically modified plants. Those who act so vociferously and categorically must have good arguments, thought those responsible for the programme, and interviewed various Greenpeace exponents - from the repentant activist to the still convinced activist and the former campaign manager who still justifies the actions to the agricultural expert at Greenpeace headquarters in Germany. Confronted with the scientific findings of renowned institutions such as the Leopoldina or the Max Planck Institute that there is no danger from genetically modified plants, the agricultural expert states that her fight would be based on scientific facts. But she does not say which facts. She also says that the lack of scientific sources on her campaign pages is due to the lack of space. The former campaign leader, on the other hand, questions the independence of the scientific institutions mentioned - he, too, without evidence for this claim.
Child mortality also leaves Greenpeace cold
SWR-Wissen also looks into Greenpeace's fight against so-called Golden Rice. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to 500,000 children worldwide go blind every year due to vitamin A deficiency. Around half of them die within twelve months of going blind. This misery could have been alleviated long ago. Just one bowl of the genetically modified golden rice would cover 40% of the daily essential vitamin A requirement. Of course, the goal should be a balanced diet for all with carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fruits. In poverty-stricken countries, however, where the daily menu consists of rice with rice garnish, golden rice, which farmers can reproduce themselves, is a blessing. But even the fact that already in 2016 more than 100 Nobel laureates accused Greenpeace of "crimes against humanity" and called on the organisation to recognise the findings of reliable scientific institutions leaves them cold. Greenpeace also tries to play down its influence, even though it has just prevented the cultivation of Golden Rice in the Philippines. The SWR editors conclude that Greenpeace has a problem with facts in green genetic engineering and claims things that the organisation cannot substantiate.
Benefit arguments of the genetic engineering proponents in the article are convincing
SWR also takes the pulse of the proponents. The fact that so-called traditional breeding by means of chemical treatment or radioactive radiation selects the "most robust survivors" for organic or conventional plant cultivation makes the Crispr Cas gene scissors seem more advantageous. It stands to reason that the targeted insertion or deletion of traits is minimally invasive, faster and more precise. In Germany alone, the yield losses from wheat alone would be huge without more resistant varieties.
SWR also explores the patent issue. The interviewed member of the European Commission explains why, with the draft law, the new breeding methods will be available to all breeders and that in 2026 it will be evaluated whether the patent law needs to be adapted. It is already clear today that universities, start-ups and larger companies all have a common interest in effective innovation protection. This also applies to the agricultural sector. However, patents do not conflict with traditional plant breeding. Varieties are not patentable in Switzerland and Europe. This will not change. Due to the need for faster adaptation of plants to climate change, new breeding traits will gain in importance, and in a networked market Swiss breeders also have an interest in being able to access these traits at home and abroad, but also to protect their own innovation. That is why there is hardly any way around more patent fitness: SMEs must also learn to deal with patents and to use the advantages of the system for themselves.
Conclusion: A sober view of warnings of all kinds is needed: For many non-governmental organisations, warning is part of the business model. But also for many media. However, alarmism - without the corresponding risk assessment and without impact assessment - is irresponsible and leads to standstill. This is what happened in Europe with green genetic engineering - with negative impacts also on people in developing countries. They would have to rely on solutions such as micronutrient-rich food or integrated pest management. Instead of spreading harmful warnings, it is time to focus on facts.
Sweeping arguments are also served
Unfortunately, the SWR article does not quite live up to its claim regarding facts: In the last part, clichés such as "concentration of power in the seed market", "patents on seeds for compartmentalisation" and the one that "green genetic engineering has so far failed to deliver on its promises" are served without further examination. In a Blindspot article, we take a closer look at these statements, which are often used as additional arguments against green genetic engineering.
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