The “Science Years” initiative was launched by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in the year 2000 to increase the public’s confidence in the work of scientists. However, the initiative has not been successful in the field of genetic engineering with the repeated destruction of trial fields sown with genetically modified plants being evidence of this. Professor Dr. Andreas Schier, agricultural scientist from Nürtingen, discusses why this is so.
All scientists dream of the possibility of being able to read their name in one of the renowned journals. This dream has recently come true for Professor Dr. Andreas Schier from the Nürtingen-Geislingen University. In its May 2008 edition, the renowned journal Nature devoted almost an entire page, and a photo, to Schier. But Schier found it difficult to enjoy what was written as the article did not focus on the appreciation of his scientific work. It focused instead on the sudden end of the field trials using genetically modified maize plants. Schier did not abandon the trials entirely voluntarily. He did so on the ‘suggestion’ of the University after opponents of genetic engineering had occupied his fields and received huge media coverage.
“If it were up to me, then I would start again immediately,” said Schier who is convinced of the benefit and importance of green genetic engineering. For him it is important to make the plants resistant to pests and also adapt them to changing climatic conditions. “In spring we already have much higher temperatures and less precipitation than is normal, which impedes the growth of the plants,” said Schier. He realises that it is one of the most important tasks of green genetic engineering to breed plants that can tolerate these new conditions. The consumption of water will become a decisive factor in the future. “In a society that does not experience such a deficiency, nobody is interested in these problems. But I am sure this will change considerably in the future,” said Schier.
Spectacular actions affect public opinion
Considering the importance of Schier’s research for society, why is there so much resistance to it? It has nothing to do with the lack of transparency. “I have spoken about my research on numerous occasions, at plenary discussions, with journalists and people who spoke to me when I was at the trial field,” said Schier. “In addition, there are many informative Internet portals on green genetic engineering that are financed by the German government. What’s the point of such information if nobody wants to hear about it or read it?” asks Schier, who is convinced that public opinion on the subject is governed by a group of activists that are skilfully fuelling public fear.
Schier is also convinced that the campaign by the activists is so successful because of the idealistic picture many people have of agriculture. “Advertising projects an image of an ideal agricultural world,” said Schier adding that modern farms are actually high-tech companies where 500 PS tractors plough the fields. “But nobody is really interested in this,” said Schier, assuming that this is why green genetic engineering is an ideal campaign victim – in strong contrast to red genetic engineering which mainly focuses on improving medical therapies for the benefit of human health. “Nowadays no one campaigns against recombinant insulin; too many people know about the advantages of insulin and want to have it,” said Schier.
Assuming that it is not the lack of willingness to discuss the issue, what is it that prevents people from supporting this type of research? The way green genetic engineering is communicated maybe? The scientist doubts this. “I am sure we have also made mistakes, but even if we had been perfect we would not have been able to persuade these fundamental critics,” said Schier convinced that even the scientists’ most sophisticated communication strategy would have been unable to counteract such a campaign. “For the activists, this is a kind of ideology, scientific arguments do not help,” said Schier.
Complicated interaction between science, politics and media
In addition, the media do not hide their leanings towards the opponents of genetic engineering. The local newspaper in Nürtingen even devoted a whole page to those who occupied our trial fields. “A spontaneous student initiative that protested against the illegal occupation was however only worth a few column inches. This says a lot,” said Schier assuming that genetic engineering opponents make better headlines than its supporters.
But Schier is also convinced that the opinions held by the media do not accurately reflect the public mood. “I am sure that if a genetically modified product cost ten cents less in the supermarket, the vast majority of the population would buy it,” said Schier recalling a party where he offered biscuits made from genetically modified maize. The biscuits were clearly labelled as such. “But in the end all of the biscuits had gone. I am sure the majority of people don’t care whether food is genetically modified or not,” said Schier summarising his opinion.
That is why Schier hopes that the public discussion will take the wind out of the sails of this campaign. “I would have liked Mr. Oettinger or Mrs. Merkel to really show their colours and clearly distance themselves from such destruction during the field occupation; but there was only silence,” said Schier explaining that green genetic engineering was an important technology of the future and mentioned as such in the German government’s coalition treaty. According to Schier, many politicians do not found their judgement on scientific facts but on the alleged trend of public opinion. Nevertheless, Schier does have some sympathy for the politicians’ position: “The election campaigns are about to start and support for green genetic engineering is unlikely to benefit German political parties.”