02.03.2023 | Science Update

Genetic engineering provides hope

Especially in times of climate change green genetic offers many opportunities. Nevertheless it is still a subject of controversial debates. OeAW researcher Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid explains where the skepticism comes from and what legal framework is needed to harness the potential of genetic engineering .

The public debate about genetic engineering has been characterized by uncertainties for decades. New methods of green genetic engineering also face a lot of skepticism. Molecular biologist Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid from the GMI – the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) – explains the distrust of food produced with the help of genetic engineering, what opportunities plants genetically edited with modern processes offer in times of limited resources, and why the current legal situation strengthens the power of the large seed companies.

“In Europe we are very nostalgic about ‘naturalness’ – without thinking about the fact that we have been breeding for 10,000 years,” the OeAW researcher says in an interview. “Not a single fruit or vegetable as we know it today corresponds to the original.” Together with the plant researcher Herrmann Bürstmayr from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna and OeAW President Heinz Faßmann, she informed journalists at the OeAW Science Update series about green genetic engineering.


What opportunities does green genetic engineering offer in times of climate change?

Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid: Green genetic engineering cannot combat climate change as such. For this we have to take many other measures. But the application of genetic engineering in plants is a possible tool to adapt our crops to the changing conditions. In times of limited land and labor resources, this can improve food security.

However, drought, heat and salt resistance, which in the face of climate change are particularly attractive as breeding targets, are complex traits that usually involve multiple genes, epigenetic regulation, and other factors. Together they decide whether plants can cope with certain conditions.

Industrial agriculture depletes soil and accelerates species extinction. Does the use of green genetic engineering contradict a necessary ‘greening’ of agriculture?

Mittelsten Scheid: On the contrary. I see potential in the fact that, because of genetic engineering, the small pool of crop plants used worldwide today will be expanded and that new crop plants are even conceivable. An example of this are approaches to converting existing wild plants into crops that are beneficial to humans with the help of targeted genetic modifications. Of course, genetic engineering is not a cure-all for making agriculture more ecologically compatible.


Genetic engineering is still very controversial among the general public. Are there grounds for this, from a scientific point of view?

Mittelsten Scheid: There are no scientific reasons to be particularly skeptical, cautious or fearful of green genetic engineering. The skepticism stems from other sources. Many people are not aware that other types of genetic engineering, i.e., what is referred to as “red” or “white” genetic engineering in medicine and chemistry, have long since found their way into our everyday lives. Genetic engineering is found in many different ways in every detergent. Genetically engineered enzymes are also used in food production. And many medicines, such as insulin, are based on genetic engineering processes.

So, what is the skepticism towards green genetic engineering based on?

Mittelsten Scheid: In my opinion, this is due to the unfortunate start of genetic engineering. One of the first traits to be genetically engineered was herbicide resistance to control weeds. At that time, the corporations Monsanto and Pioneer quickly came into play, and were accused of being interested only in profit. Activists destroyed “GM corn” test fields for alleged ecological reasons, claiming to defend creation. This, in turn, caused a great deal of media attention – and this skepticism was sustained and anchored very strongly in the public.

Genetically engineered plants are considered unnatural. What is the difference between plant breeding and genetic engineering?

Mittelsten Scheid: In Europe we are very nostalgic about “naturalness” – without thinking about the fact that we have been breeding for 10,000 years. Not a single fruit or vegetable as we know it today corresponds to the original. All of our organic products are very much the result of human intervention in nature.


How appropriate do you think the strict regulation of genome edited plants in the EU is?

Mittelsten Scheid: From a scientific point of view, it is not appropriate. And it is also illogical, because in the end modern methods of gene editing can produce the same kind of mutations that result from classical breeding. The difference is that gene editing can be much more targeted, faster and cheaper than classic breeding. The genetically modified end product is molecular-biologically indistinguishable from a mutation produced in the conventional way.

The public debate is dominated by the concern that with the use of green genetic engineering, the labeling of products as “GMO-free” will no longer be controllable. How do you see it?

Mittelsten Scheid: The “GMO-free” label is currently a sales argument, not a safety certificate and not always a sign of quality. In the long term, I think that labeling will become superfluous as soon as consumers have the opportunity to choose higher quality products regardless of their production method via classic or modern genetic engineering.

Critics say that new genetic engineering processes promise a lucrative business, especially for seed companies. Is that correct?

Mittelsten Scheid: The current legislation cements the power of the really big players in the field. The approval procedures are so complex and expensive that only large corporations can afford to think about whether they want to go through these processes. And that’s why they only go through them for products from which they hope to make global profits. If the legal regulation were to be adapted to what already exists for the approval of new varieties in classic breeding, then smaller companies could also consider such methods for their local crops. This would promote the local diversity of cultivated plants.


At a glance

On March 2, 2023, a Science Update on the subject of green genetic engineering took place at the GMI – the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) – with the molecular biologist Ortun Mittelsten Scheid (OeAW) and the plant researcher Hermann Bürstmayr (BOKU). The series of talks launched last year by the Academy’s new Presiding Committee aims to strengthen the exchange between journalists and experts on socially relevant issues.

Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid is a research group leader at the GMI, the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology of the OeAW. The biologist previously researched at the Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology in Germany, as well as in Switzerland at ETH Zurich and at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel. She is the winner of the OeAW’s Erwin Schrödinger Prize.

Impressions from the Science Update