New genome editing techniques are much more precise than the genetic engineering that took place in the 2000s. They have potential for breeding crop varieties that are resistant to disease and climate effects without introducing foreign DNA into the plant’s genetic material. Meanwhile, the feared risks of genetically modified plants have not played out. Many researchers are now calling for case-by-case assessment of new varieties based not on their cultivation method but on their inherent properties.
In addition, a new generation of consumers is showing much greater openness towards innovative solutions in agriculture. I can imagine society being more open towards new technologies in the face of the urgent problems of our time, such as the use of pesticides, climate change and the extinction of species.
Starting the debate anew
In a study on the acceptance of various solutions for potato blight
, we presented participants with four measures that protect potatoes or make them resistant: injection of synthetic fungicides, copper treatment, introduction of the genes of a wild variety of potato (genetic engineering) or modification of the genetic material of the cultivated potato (genome editing). The result: most people preferred genetic engineering.
Of course, we cannot conclude from this one study that the Swiss population broadly agrees with genetic engineering. But the results suggest that the question of the perception of genetic engineering is much more complex than the media would have us believe.
It is irresponsible and patronising to flatly rule out the idea that consumers may be open towards well-researched technologies. When we ask people the right questions, we receive relevant answers.
Angela Bearth is Vice President of the Forum for Genetic Research of the Swiss Academy of Sciences.