“Today, we have made good progress. The talks were very focused and intensive,” said the German Federal Research Minister Annette Schavan, summarising what had been achieved at the second green genetic engineering roundtable in Berlin attended by invited representatives from science, the agricultural and food industries, environmental associations and churches.
The first roundtable discussions held in May 2009 were mainly characterised by an exchange of the established positions of the opponents and supporters of green genetic engineering. The objective of the second roundtable was therefore to identify future topics and issues in publicly funded agricultural and plant research as well as dealing with aspects related to ecological safety research. Although it was not possible at this stage to envisage a concrete result, the fixed positions of the first meeting appeared to be relaxed slightly in this second meeting.
Annette Schavan opened the discussions by referring to the "Nine issue catalogue for ecological risk research" presented by NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) and other environmental associations last week. The catalogue criticises the BMBF-funded (German Ministry of Education and Research) safety research where it highlights nine "research issues on sustainability and ecological risks" that, according to the associations, have only received scant attention up until now. The paper calls for the "systematic identification of the effects of the genetically modified maize MON810" and an examination of the "spread of transgenes through bees, bumblebees and other pollinating insects".
Representatives from regulatory agencies and research institutions pointed out that eight of the nine issues on the list related to aspects that are already being addressed by food safety and environmental compatibility tests in applications for the marketing authorisation of a special product, and that the same issues were already covered by the risk research carried out as part of the same applications. The regulatory agencies and research institutions are of the firm opinion that fundamental knowledge gaps in the assessment of the safety of genetically modified plants do not exist.
Schavan agreed to deal in detail with the issues presented by the environmental associations. "Our next meeting will review the last thirty years of risk research and identify areas where further action is necessary."
The second thematic priority of the roundtable participants focused on the future orientation of agricultural and plant research, including plant biotechnology and associated safety research. The BMBF recently presented a first draft paper on future strategies in plant breeding. This paper was based on a review of the research programmes of the German Ministry of Education and Reseach (BMBF) and the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV).
Schavan suggested the establishment of a closer link between the individual funding priorities. She also announced "further developments, in particular with regard to sustainability". This announcement was made in response to the environmental associations' call for greater financial support for research into ecosystems relationships and sustainable land use systems. This includes the systematic assessment of the ecological and economic sustainability of all agricultural cultivation systems, i.e. conventional and ecological agriculture or agriculture using genetically modified plants.
In agricultural and plant research, Schavan and the BMBF favour a funding strategy that is not restricted to certain methods. According to Schavan, the chosen method should not be "an end in itself, but rather a means to an end". She pointed out that it was important to discuss and compare the entire spectrum of available technologies, including green genetic engineering methods, without reservation and without any predetermined conclusions. Schavan believes that it is of decisive importance to achieve the best possible result for the environment, farmers and consumers alike.
"The roundtable discussions have shown that it is necessary to take into account all the different views on green genetic engineering, especially with regard to existing global problems," concluded Annette Schavan adding "an objective dialogue requires a differentiated approach".
Schavan announced another roundtable discussion for October, on international developmental cooperation in plant and agricultural research.
The green genetic engineering roundtable was first set up in mid-May by Research Minister Annette Schavan and Agricultural Minister Ilse Aigner. Aigner, who had advocated the current provisional ban on the cultivation of genetically modified maize MON810 in Germany, had met with enormous criticism, particularly from scientists. The second roundtable also included an ecological agriculture representative and a representative from a non-governmental organisation (development policy). Ilse Aigner did not personally participate in the second roundtable discussions.