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Déjà vu all over again: Germany’s ‘regulatory stranglehold’ on New Breeding Techniques mirrors its policy on GMOs 20 years ago

| July 17, 2018

Biotechnology applied to agriculture is beginning to yield all manner of products, including fruits and vegetables that are disease-resistant, more nutritious and able to grow with less chemicals. We may see an agricultural revolution in much of the world during the next decade. But not in Germany.

Burdened by both the European Union’s and national regulations, German researchers have found themselves in a regulatory stranglehold. They are hindered by required “case by case every case” governmental review, even of negligible-risk experiments; have low expectations that products ultimately will be approved for marketing; and are beleaguered by activists who manifest a degree of hostility not seen elsewhere. Consequently, many scientists and companies have left the country and some who remain are conducting field trials abroad.

[Editor’s note: This article by Henry Miller published 22 years ago, in 1996, eerily foreshadows the current situation in Germany, where anti-biotech activists are exploiting political ambivalence to undermine support for biotechnology advances in biomedicine and agriculture. In the 1990s, on the verge of emerging as a world leader in what turned out to be a  technological revolution in agriculture, Germany sunk into indecision, ambivalence and eventually irrelevance in this fast-advacing field. In 2018, granted a second chance, on the cusp of the CRISPR gene editing and New Breeding Technique revolution, Germany is replicating its past failed policies, as German farmer Susanne Günther explicated in a recently-posted searing GLP analysis, How Anti-GMO Advocates Hijacked German science, Blocking Agricultural Innovation and Threatening the CRISPR Revolution: A Farmer’s Perspective.]

Of some 6,000 field trials world-wide of plants genetically engineered with the most precise recombinant DNA, or gene-splicing, techniques, only a few dozen have been performed in Germany. It is particularly disturbing that last year, all 15 of such small-scale field trials conducted by universities and research institutes in Germany were partially or completely destroyed by activists, even though most were studying the environmental safety of growing genetically manipulated plants in normal agricultural environments. One postdoctoral fellow was attacked with stones while trying to protect his virus-resistant sugar beets from vandals.

Those who ignore the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them. The current situation recalls Germany in the 1930’s when the Third Reich vilified and persecuted the practitioners of what the regime called Entartete Kunst, “degenerate art.” Accused by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels of “insolent arrogance” and “snobbism,” they included such subversives as Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso.

Now we have a kind of Entartete Forschung, degenerate research. The stridency and absolutism of the activists’ pronouncements — and their violent tendencies — are uncomfortably familiar. The German government is not culpable in the current situation, however, except indirectly by neglecting to protect the personal safety and property of plant scientists against assaults by anti- biotechnology activists.

Related article:  USDA set to release final 'bioengineered' food labeling rule

But the vandals are abetted by governmental ambivalence and policies that equate innovation with risk. There is an obvious solution — one that has been purposefully ignored by policy makers in both the European Union (EU) and Germany: Simply apply scientific and risk-based regulatory policies to the testing of gene-spliced plants.

As the distinguished British journal Nature editorialized in 1992, a broad scientific consensus holds that “the same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods . . . [Therefore] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.” Putting this another way, government regulation of field research with plants should focus on the traits that may be related to risk — invasiveness, weediness, toxicity, and so forth –rather than on whether one or another technique of genetic manipulation was used.

Flying in the face of the scientific consensus, current EU and German regulation casts a veil of suspicion over biotechnology by requiring case by case government environmental assessments for field testing with gene-spliced plants. By contrast, plants with similar or even identical traits that were created with less precise techniques, such as hybridization or mutagenesis, are subject to no government scrutiny or requirements (and no publicity) at all. And that applies even to the numerous new plant varieties that result from “wide crosses,” hybridizations which move genes from one species or genus to another –that is, across natural breeding boundaries.

If gene-spliced plants were treated appropriately — that is, like other new varieties — their testing would not need government review, special warning signs, or public announcements. There would be no way for the thugs to target and disrupt field research that they consider Entartete Forschung.

There is an important lesson here: The problem would have been avoided entirely, had public policy been crafted intelligently in the first place.

Prof Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow of Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution and a consulting professor at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal in April 1996 as Biotechnology and the Brown Shirts and has been republished here with permission. This piece has been reproduced in full with the author’s permission.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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