What was the use of daemonization

Put an end to the demonization of green genetic engineering!

In the autumn of last year, the US seed manufacturer Monsanto, whose shareholders approved the takeover by the Leverkusen-based pharmaceutical and chemical company Bayer, was in the dock. The plaintiffs: A self-proclaimed tribunal made up of environmental activists and opponents of globalization, supported by Greenpeace, Attac and many a dubious scientist - and by Renate Künast, who, as the official “ambassador” of the “civil society organized court” in Germany, has been busy promoting and donating . They used a university in The Hague, the city where war criminals are tried before the International Criminal Court, as the venue for the “trial”. The "charges" were "human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and ecocide". "Crimes against humanity" are defined as displacement, enslavement, torture, deportation, murder and other inhumane acts against the civilian population. “Ecocide” is deliberately modeled on the term genocide. Can't it be a size smaller?

In the tribunal's self-created logo, “Mon $ anto” is shown with a dollar sign in the lettering. This should feed ideas of a company that the organizers accuse of “lying and corruption, financing fraudulent scientific studies” and “manipulating press organs”. And the date of the final “judgment” has it all. The “verdict” will come on October 16, 70 years after the Nazi officials convicted of crimes against humanity were executed in Nuremberg. This ends a cleverly staged show trial against Monsanto, in which the plaintiffs play both jury and judge, in which the “verdict” was therefore already determined from the outset and in which it was never about a fair exchange of arguments. Instead, the organizers and their supporters were solely concerned with demonizing a company, indeed an entire industry.

Many environmental activists and opponents of globalization seem to have found a favorite task in demonizing anyway. We were all able to see how easily this works in the public discussion about TTIP. Because after Campact and Attac had declared the “chlorinated chicken” to be a symbol of the free trade agreement and had charged the debate emotionally, a return to a calm, objective style of discussion was hardly possible. The assertion that European safety standards will not be lowered did not help against the alleged imminent danger of being inundated with unhealthy American food. The argument that chlorine treatment demonstrably does not pose any health risks (in contrast to the raw milk cheese that is so valued in Europe and also by me, which is the chlorine chicken of the American TTIP opponents due to the real risk of infestation with Listeria) was still caught. Otherwise we would have long since had to close all swimming pools in which people accidentally swallow water with a much higher chlorine content. And the fact that many cucumbers and salads in the EU are already disinfected with chlorinated water after harvesting and imported to Germany has not brought any TTIP critic onto the streets.

These examples already show how fears of new technologies, of the unknown and the difficult to grasp, are consciously fueled. Above all, however, they show how frighteningly irrational fears often are. On the other hand, an order model that divides the world into good and bad naturally offers support and orientation: here the good CETA, there the bad TTIP; here the good consumer advocates, there the bad lobbyists; good organic farming here, bad genetic engineering there. However, especially when evaluating new technologies, a rational inventory is required: costs, multiplied by the probability of occurrence, have to be weighed against opportunities, which also have to be multiplied by their probability of occurrence.

For green genetic engineering, this means according to the current state of science: Within the European Union, over 500 independent research teams have dealt with the possible risks of genetic engineering over the past 25 years. More than 300 million euros have been invested in this. In none of these studies could negative effects be found, which is why the EU Commission comes to the conclusion “that there is so far no scientific evidence that genetically modified organisms pose a greater risk to the environment or food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms. "

However, a rational inventory also means that we have to be aware that genetic engineering has long been part of our everyday reality. If one were to label all foods in Germany that came into contact with genetic engineering during their production, this would be estimated at between 70 and 85 percent. This applies to the use of vitamins, enzymes, amino acids and flavors that are produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms. A number of important medicines, almost all cotton textiles, cleaning agents and detergents contain genetically modified organisms. I therefore advocate full process labeling for all foodstuffs and consumer goods in the production of which genetically modified organisms are involved at any stage of production. This is the only way to fully inform consumers! But why is such a process label fiercely fought by those who always warn of the dangers of genetic engineering? Paradoxical at first glance, logical at second glance: If more than 70 percent of our food actually bore this label, there would be three weeks of excitement and then the subject would be settled.

The far-reaching consequences of these anti-enlightenment campaigns on Germany as a business and research location have been observed for some time: since 2013 there have been no more field trials on genetically modified plants in this country, many excellent scientists have meanwhile emigrated, and large corporations have almost all of their research departments abroad relocated. As a result, we have now lost touch with international research in the field of green genetic engineering. In addition, genetically modified plants have not been grown in Germany since 2012. And this despite the fact that they have been subjected to a comprehensive risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority, declared safe and therefore approved for EU-wide cultivation. For fear of a loss of image, seed producing companies have even started to exclude Germany as a possible cultivation area as a precaution.

Unfortunately, we are currently buckling in the Bundestag as well. The draft law recently submitted by Federal Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt to amend the Genetic Engineering Act aims at a comprehensive GMO cultivation ban in Germany. The EU created such an “opt-out” option in March 2015. Schmidt had initially made the clever attempt to leave this decision to the federal states. Because then there would at least have been a chance that a brave federal state would find itself that would not also want to get out of this future technology. But the SPD did not go along with that and there was no support from Bavaria, which celebrates itself as being “GMO-free”. A compromise has now been reached that, with the approval of the majority of the federal states, enables a nationwide exit from genetic engineering - an exit for at least one generation, because entrepreneurial, agricultural and scientific expertise in this area cannot even be brought back.

We, safety-loving Germans, should be aware that we were wrong when it came to assessing the risk of biotechnology - namely, when it came to red genetic engineering: when it was first possible to manufacture human insulin using genetically modified bacteria in the early 1980s, Hoechst also wanted to start production. But the then Hessian environment minister, Joschka Fischer, refused the Frankfurt pharmaceutical company an operating permit for purely ideological reasons. Foreign manufacturers took over the production. In the meantime, genetically modified human insulin has almost completely displaced animal insulin from the market. And parts of the Greens, of all people, are supporting an increased use of red genetic engineering today, among other things with ecological arguments.

In this respect, we should finally make ourselves more aware of the opportunities offered by green genetic engineering. There is, for example, the currently hotly debated “genome editing”, ie the molecular biological removal, insertion and modification of pieces of DNA. This method is currently being celebrated by numerous science magazines as the greatest methodological innovation in microbiology for more than 20 years. It could make it possible, for example, to cure diseases such as leukemia, combat antibiotic resistance or reduce rejection reactions in donated organs.

There is also enormous potential in combating hunger and disease in the world. The genetically modified “golden rice”, for example, can remedy the vitamin A deficiency of malnourished people because it is enriched with beta-carotene. After all, one to two million people die every year from such a deficiency and up to 500,000 children go blind. In addition, it will simply not be possible to feed the world population with conventional agriculture alone, which according to current estimates by the United Nations will grow from 7.4 billion at present to just under 10 billion people in 2050. And organic farming, which only makes up one percent of the agricultural area worldwide, will certainly not be able to do that.

Yes, you can and should take a critical look at Monsanto. You can talk about some business models, some contractual terms and how the company deals with patents. What one certainly cannot accuse the company of are “crimes against humanity”, as the self-proclaimed Monsanto Tribunal did. Rather, one has to ask oneself whether the vehement opponents of green genetic engineering are not guilty if, for example, they prevent the cultivation of “golden rice”. 113 Nobel Prize winners put it that harshly in an open letter to Greenpeace and demand that the blockade against biotechnology finally be abandoned. They are right! Anyone who simply rejects the opportunities and specific benefits of green genetic engineering without well-founded evidence of their harmfulness and demonizes the corresponding companies is not only acting naively, but also irresponsible and decadent.

This article first appeared on the Tichys Insight blog on March 31, 2017.

© Image - Fotolia