European activists opposing all forms of modern genetics have a new defector. The heretic is no other than Urs Niggli, for more than 25 years Director of the Switzerland-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Das Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau, FiBL). FiBL is one of the world’s leading organic farming information and research centers located in Switzerland with branches in Germany and Austria. It is internationally respected for its research in the organic agricultural community and beyond. While FiBL has been among the first outspoken critics of genetic engineering in the past (and claims responsibility for the GMO ban installed in Switzerland), it’s director now has adopted a more balanced view. But when he spoke out in an interview in the German-language newspaper Die Tageszeitung taz, published April 6, Niggli found himself in the focus of a shitstorm by NGOs and lobby groups of organic agriculture. At present, he no longer speaks to the media. (article est disponible en Frenche ici.)
Niggli’s capital crime: He spoke in favor of CRISPR/cas, a violation of the central dogma of the European organic movement that all technologies developed by modern genetics are unnatural and inherently evil. CRISPR/cas, a novel, simple and very elegant method for precisely targeted interventions in the genome is a natural process discovered in bacteria. While it is not more unnatural than the process of cloning and grafting popular among breeders since ancient Greece (and probably before) and can be performed similarly cheap and easy, for anti-GMO NGOs and organic lobby groups this natural process is viewed as even more dangerous than traditional genetic engineering as it can be applied without leaving any traces.
In Europe, the EU is on the brink of deciding on how to deal with CRISP/cas, and the anti-GMO lobby is heavily campaigning against any regulation that would allow breeders to use the technology or companies to bring CRISPR/cas-generated plants on the market. To create a new and increased level of fear, the lobbyists have coined the term „extreme genetic engineering.“
They are very well aware that any differentiation between technologies allowing for genome interventions will destroy their narrative of „natural“ vs. „unnatural.“ Interestingly, when advocates of genetic engineering in plants educated the public about the chemical and radiation breeding technologies used in conventional and even organic breeding, organic breeders announced they would also abandon those technologies and stick to „natural“ mutations (they employ molecular genetic technologies for trait screening though).
In this situation Urs Niggli, a respected authority and opinion leader in the organic agriculture movement, is speaking out. Obviously, he does not want to dismiss a technology which according to his interview, bears „great potential“ even for organic breeders and farmers. He said, going without this technology might mean in the long run, that conventional farmers would have a pest-resistant potato which could grow entirely pesticide-free while organic farmers still had to apply copper salts or other pesticides allowed by organic standards – in his view an unbearable situation. He added, the CRISPR/cas technology was quite different from the traditional genetic engineering technologies and would remove a number of concerns raised by the older techniques. Instead of rejecting CRISPR/cas fundamentally, it was advisable to look at the particular application. „Even now, I can name useful applications,“ he said, mentioning disease resistances as an example. „One could disable genes for disease susceptibilities or introduce resistance genes from wild relatives into modern cultivars. These are properties that have been largely lost in the breeding for yield and quality over the last hundred years. This would enable us to reduce large amounts of pesticides.“
In organic agriculture, downy mildew was a great problem with potatoes, grapes and hops, he said, adding, that the copper used in organic farming to fight this fungal disease was a problem as copper was poisoning the soil. Conventional breeding techniques would require 30, 40 years of work and consume large sums of money, without any guarantee that the pathogen remained unchanged during that period.
As another advantage he mentioned the low cost of the technology as opposed to the huge amounts of money required for classical genetic engineering. „CRISPR/cas can be applied even by small breeders: Technically, it’s extremely easy and each application costs about 50-60 Euros“, he said, adding that CRISPR/cas was a „democratic method“, unlike the old ones which were only affordable by big corporations.
Plants derived with CRISPR/cas should not be regulated and labeled as GMOs as the technology was much less risky than classical genetic engineering. Regulation should be less complex, faster and cheaper. Labeling these plants as GMOs would be „counterproductive.“
Asked whether the technology would pose unknown risks, e.g. unintended and unnoticed changes in the genome, potentially giving rise to allergies and other health or environmental consequences, he bluntly answered: „That you don’t know with traditional breeding as well“, adding examples of conventional breeding leading to products with increased allergy potential. „I think a zero risk strategy is quixotic.“
The reactions started pouring in the very next day. Organic lobby groups small and large expressed their disgust in interviews and press releases and dismissed his claims, saying Niggli was doing the GMO lobby a big favor. Saat:gut e. V., an association of organic seed producers, wrote an open letter to FiBL, stating its members were „full of outrage“ that Niggli was „discrediting the joint efforts of producer, processor and consumer associations.“ He was „snubbing the trust of our customers and sowing the seeds of doubt over our attitude towards genetic engineering.“ The signatories were „vehemently against the implication that ecologic plant breeding was protracted, cumbersome and not affordable (too costly).“ A „particular low“ was Niggli’s „adopting of arguments used by the GMO lobby“. The petitioners demand from FiBL’s Board of Trustees and Board to „oblige all employees“ to be in line with the aims and content of organic agriculture.
German pomologist Hans-Joachim Bannier, an advocate of organic agriculture, in another open letter accused Niggli of having „fallen victim to the fascination of manipulative genetic engineering techniques in breeding and their maybe short-term successes“. He demands Niggli to step down and move to a place where he could „better follow his new mission.“
Heike Moldenhauer who studied philosophy and German language/literature before becoming speaker for genetic engineering and TTIP policy at BUND/Friends of the Earth Germany, an influential NGO with nearly half a million members and supporters, said in an interview, Niggli had „stabbed the movement in the back“. She added, Niggli was not acting as part of a movement to which he belonged but as an individual. It was wrong to believe in „pure science“ as there was no such thing as pure science.
Christoph Then, a veterinarian making a living from his lobby group Testbiotech, a small initiative founded and financed by lobby groups from organic trade and industry associations said Niggli’s statements were more similar to „the propaganda of proponents of genetic engineering“. He pointed out, Niggli was member of the Board of Trustees of Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research: „These networks should be investigated more closely,“ he said.
All in all, these reactions are not reactions found in rational discourse but reactions common in cults and religions: heretics must renounce or be punished and expelled and their deviant thoughts can only be explained by temptation, either by the devil, pure science, or big ag.