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‘Modern genetic techniques offer many prospects for agroecology’: Q&A with Urs Niggli

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

For years, as director of the Swiss Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Urs Niggli fought against the genetic modification of crops. Today, he emphatically advocates the use of modern genetic engineering, in agroecology. We talked with Niggli, who is now founding president of the Germany-based Institute for Agroecology, while serving as a university professor in Germany and China. 

By Joost van Kasteren 

Urs Niggli, a former champion of organic agriculture, now supporting genetic engineering. Photo: Mafalda Rakos

Why the change in your thinking?

Urs Niggli: ‘It has been a long process. I was part of an international network of research institutes on organic farming. At the same time, as “the organic guy”, I also participated in evaluations of research proposals and programmes in the field of conventional agriculture. Once you do that for several years, you gain a good understanding of what is really going on.’ 

Most people find it hard to change their minds.

Niggli: ‘I have an “open mind”. My choice of organic farming was never ideologically driven. My main concern has always been how best to achieve global food security. When I was involved in the scientific preparation of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, I realised I should not stick to organic agriculture as the only solution to sustainable food security at all costs. I needed to broaden my horizons. 

‘I’ve come to realise organic agriculture will always be more or less a niche; globally, it's now 2% on average, maybe it will become 10–15% with outliers like Austria where organic farming is practised on more than a quarter of the area. But that’s about it.

At the same time, a transformation is needed towards a way of farming that is ecologically and socially responsible while delivering high yields. In my view, that is agroecology. That transformation also includes research into new breeding techniques such as gene editing. This technique allows us to make crops resistant to diseases, pests and drought. It could replace mineral fertilisers because crops other than leguminous plants can also fix nitrogen. Much of it is still in the future, but new breeding techniques offer many prospects for agroecology.’

‘I’ve come to realise organic agriculture will always be more or less a niche’ 

Has your advocacy of research into new breeding methods had any personal consequences?

Niggli: ‘I would have liked to continue as director of FiBL for a few more years, but I left earlier at the request of the president who wanted renewal and a woman as director. It was a complicated situation. I suspect my ideas on new breeding techniques had something to do with it but that was never explicitly said.’

The green movement raises quite a few objections to the use of new breeding techniques. For instance, genetically engineered crops could pose dangers to human and environmental health.

Niggli: ‘The scientific community, of which I am still part, is clear: modern breeding techniques are no more risky than any classical breeding method. I've been on European and Swiss committees where environmental groups were also represented. They have not been able to substantiate in any way their claim that these techniques are dangerous. That means they were either too lazy to find out, or they were unable to find anything to support their claim.’

‘The scientific community, of which I am still part, is clear: modern breeding techniques are no more risky than any classical breeding method’

In addition to the unsubstantiated risks, ethical concerns are also raised. 

Niggli: ‘Indeed. The Academie d’Agriculture de France, for example, pointed out that you can look at a crop’s genome as either the result of an evolutionary process which cannot be neglected, or as merely a packet of genes, which we can change without difficulty. This is a philosophical issue. 

‘I myself think it’s more important that a plant grows well and produces a healthy yield. In that case, genetic modifications are justified, especially if they allow us to reduce the use of pesticides, fertilisers and water.’

Since there are no additional risks to new breeding techniques, do you think no additional rules are needed for the authorisation of genetically modified crops?

Niggli: ‘I agree, no additional rules are needed. It would be best to simply embed the authorisation of genetically edited crops into the existing rules for the introduction of new varieties. 

‘However, you might just have the question of transparency. If many consumers do not want products made by modern breeding methods, you need to indicate whether they have been used, just as we do now with products based on GM crops. The only problem is that if you give products based on GM crops the same label as GM crops then they will have no chance in the market.’  

‘It would be best to simply embed the authorisation of genetically edited crops into the existing rules for the introduction of new varieties’

Another often cited argument against new breeding methods is that using them further increases the economic power of agro-multinationals.

Niggli: ‘Belgian researcher Koen Deconinck has analysed the international seed market for the OECD. This showed that the restrictions on GM crops in the European Union have significantly promoted monopolisation in the seed sector. Small and medium-sized breeding companies are struggling as a result. 

According to Deconinck, we should not make the same mistake with modern breeding techniques. We should avoid over-regulating which would only benefit the multinationals.’

Even without additional regulation, multinationals can still protect and strengthen their position through patents.

Niggli: ‘Patenting seeds is a political matter. In Europe we have a great system for protecting intellectual property – plant breeders’ rights. Under pressure from US multinationals such as Monsanto, this has been undercut by genetically modified crops. 

‘With the advent of modern genetic techniques, it has become urgent to seriously discuss patents on those techniques and on the seeds produced this way. The aim should be that small and medium-sized farms and collectives of farmers can also use those techniques. 

‘The European Seed Association has proposed an intermediate form where breeders only pay for a licence if their product is successful. That’s a possibility, but I personally think there should be no patent on starting material. We might want to treat patenting plants with species-specific genes the same as patenting plants obtained through organic processes.’

Politically that might get tricky. 

Niggli: ‘You might think so, but in nearly all the debates with scientists I have participated in, the pretty much universally shared conclusion was that it was a bad idea to allow the possibility of patenting seed stock.’

‘With the advent of modern genetic techniques, it has become urgent to seriously discuss patents on those techniques’

Back to your advocacy for agroecology. You reject, like proponents of organic agriculture, the use of fertilisers and synthetic pesticides, which results in lower yields. How do you reconcile this fact with your desire for higher productivity? 

Niggli: ‘Agroecology is not a recipe, but a route to change. This is in contrast to organic farming which is mostly a yes/no story: you either respect all restrictions or you don’t. With agroecology, the emphasis is on ecological, social and economic sustainability. We do not exclude mineral fertilisers and synthetic pesticides a priori, but we strive to reduce their use, for example by precision farming as a first step. The ultimate goal could be a sharp reduction in synthetically fixed nitrogen and pesticides.’

About half of the nitrogen atoms in our bodies were once sequestered through the Haber-Bosch process. Without fertilisers, we will have huge famines.

Niggli: ‘Obviously, nobody wants that. Let me explain. Thanks in part to the use of chemistry in agriculture, we have greatly simplified our farming systems in recent decades. As a result, we have not taken ecological and social conditions sufficiently into account. This is going to result particularly in loss of soil quality, more specifically organic matter content. Therefore, we need to return to complex farming systems that are both ecologically and economically robust. 

‘This transformation will not be easy. Long-term crop rotation, for example, means having outlets for six or seven crops instead of two or three as is the case today. Getting rid of synthetic pesticides means developing other forms of crop protection.

‘Agroecology is one of the routes to sustainable food security. In my ideal picture, it’s a combination of indigenous knowledge, elements from organic farming such as very wide crop rotation, mixing crops with animals, renouncing chemistry and using advanced technology. We are only at the beginning of this transformation. I see it as my job to encourage the next steps.’ 

Joost van Kasteren is a veteran science journalist and agronomist based in the Netherlands. He’s an agriculture and food expert with RePlanet Nederland. 


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