Farm & Food 4.0
International Congress Berlin
Farm & Food 4.0

05. December 2019

Agriculture must overcome scepticism about genetic engineering

Interview with FiBl Director Urs Niggli

Urs Niggli will take part in the BioTech-Session

Programme 2020

How do genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture fit together? Prof. Urs Niggli, Director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Frick and lecturer at ETH Zurich, believes that genetic engineering offers great opportunities: As a society, we have to talk about the potential of genetic engineering for plant breeding as well as its risks.

By Sarah Liebigt


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Farm & Food: FiBL has been doing field research for four decades. What were the biggest changes during that time?

Urs Niggli: What is remarkable for me is that organic farming has arrived in the middle of society but has also been very well received by agriculture. Grain production, for example, is no longer afraid of organic farming. Organic grain is very much in demand, it is produced in good quality and highest productivity.

The excitement about your views on genetic engineering dates back a few years. Did we come any further regarding genetic research and the use of genetically modified food? Or is the separation into two factions still valid among farmers: understanding genetic research as a tool or as devil’s play?

There has been enormous progress in basic molecular research. This is mainly driven by medicine, but also by agriculture and the food industry: it also affects areas where it would not be expected to be applied. This could be archaeology, criminalistics, etc. These developments are now being used in many technical areas.

There is still a great deal of scepticism in agriculture, because there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how this will affect ecology, the environment and human health. The conflict we have here has not really changed, but I think we should talk about the potential as well as the risks. When I think of agriculture, which has an enormous task, we as a society must look at the potential of genetic engineering for plant breeding.

What do you mean when you are talking about organic farming?

The insight that agriculture, as it is practiced worldwide today, must change has become widespread. Both science and politics know that we need a transformation towards sustainability. Organic farming has already achieved a great deal. It is a good example of how farmers, agriculture and industry can be “switched” towards more sustainability. Organic farming is characterised above all by the fact that farmers plan their farms with much more foresight. Organic farmers in agriculture have already implemented the preventive element. These efforts deserve enormous support.

Institutions such as FiBL are very important for the transfer of knowledge and the practical testing of new ideas. How is FiBL cross-linked throughout Europe?

FiBL conducts applied basic research. For example, we develop fungicides and at the same time go on farms and try it out with farmers. We use farmers’ knowledge to better develop our new developments in the right direction. We have a portfolio of activities that is very closely oriented to practice.

This model has also found acceptance in other countries: FiBL now exists in Germany, Austria, Hungary and France. We have a common roof, FiBL Europe. This development was only possible because we are a private, non-profit institution that can react very dynamically. As a state institution, we could not have done that. Because we cooperate across borders, we naturally have many synergy effects. 

How can institutions contribute to creating connections beyond national borders, to networks and to networking stakeholders?

According to my observations, there is no real culture of cooperation in and between many institutions. It is also very difficult to work together beyond state borders. This is where EU research offers many opportunities to work together on ideas.  A good example are networks funded by the EU in which national funds are pooled, which makes great and productive research possible.

What do you expect from the next Farm & Food? Who do you want to meet?

One of the most important points I expect from Farm & Food 4.0 is the networking of very different people: lateral thinkers, conventional thinkers, high-tech people, ecologists. Only in this way can we solve the complex challenge of sustainable global nutrition.

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