Fighting for science

Kathrin Mendler, a fourth-year agronomy student at Nürtingen-Geislingen University (HfWU), is fighting back. Her university “bowed to pressure from the protest groups and announced that all trials of genetically modified plants would be stopped for the next five years.” She leads a group of students calling for the school to reverse her decision, GMO Safety reports. The story was also reported in NatureNews.

The protesters have destroyed fields almost every year since 1996, when researchers at HfWU first started to study transgenic crops.  One of the biggest arguments against genetic engineering is that it is untested. The students at HfWU worry that the only research on genetic engineering will be conducted by big corporations, if they can no longer research at universities. Sadly, the same has been happening in the US. The entire interview with Kathrin can be found below…

GMO Safety: In early April, GM opponents occupied a trial field at the HfWU, rendering it largely unfit for deliberate release experiments. What do you make of this type of protest?

Kathrin Mendler: The fields were destroyed in previous years too when the maize was trampled on and pulled up after sowing. It is important for people to freely express their opinion, but I think it’s completely wrong to do it this way. You can find ways to put your point across without destroying other people’s property. It annoys me that they treat the property of others like this, and then maintain that it is all legal. The destruction of the trials restricts the research and then the very people who have done this are the first to complain that not enough research is being carried out in this particular field.

GMO Safety: The occupiers of the field see their actions as a legitimate democratic means of standing up for their beliefs. They talk about ‘peaceful protest’.

Kathrin Mendler: I wouldn’t describe the destruction of fields and plants as ‘peaceful’. Ok, so it was peaceful. They didn’t harm anybody. But in my view, occupying and destroying other people’s property has got nothing to do with democracy. We students were very concerned by the way the occupiers treated the field. You may have seen the pictures on the Internet. Ditches were dug around the tower to create a bike track. The soil is now heavily compacted as a result of foot traffic and vehicles. This is still a source of annoyance to many students.

GMO Safety: The HfWU yielded to pressure from the protest groups and abandoned the research project to avoid damaging the university’s image. Can you understand the university’s position?

Kathrin Mendler: I personally think that abandoning the research project has caused far more damage to its image. The population and even the students have never been party to the internal discussions on this subject. The public sees only that the trials have been suspended after a very short period of time just because there was a bit of opposition. And this opposition, in the form of the occupation of the field, came neither from our students, nor from local people but from all over Germany. I believe, and other students are saying the same thing, that stopping the research in these circumstances shows a lack of fortitude. On the other hand, I can sympathise with the university management. It’s the same every year. Pressure from the protest groups on this occasion was particularly high, but nevertheless, the trials should not have been stopped.

GMO Safety: Together with other students you have written an open letter to the university management. Can you describe the contents of this letter?

Kathrin Mendler: We wanted to make it clear that we do not agree with the fact that the research is being stopped due to pressure from the occupiers of the field and some sections of society. We are convinced that universities are one of the few institutions that can conduct unbiased research on a legal basis. Although we had only very little time and I’m sure we could have got more signatures, 160 of around 240 agronomy students signed the letter. And even now, two weeks after submitting the letter to the university, the whole issue is still a major topic of conversation among students. I think that shows just how important it is.

GMO Safety: Deliberate release experiments with GM plants can no longer be conducted at the HfWU. What does this mean in practice for you as a budding agronomist?

Kathrin Mendler: The trial cultivation in Oberboihingen was hands-on science. With Professor Schier we carried out practical experiments and could see how conventional plants were infested with fungi as a result of damage from European corn borer larvae. The genetically modified plants, on the other hand, had no corn borer damage. These plants were visibly healthier and had far fewer signs of fungal attack. I think that Professor Schier will continue to give lectures on genetic engineering because it is a key aspect of modern arable farming, but now we will only get to see pictures. It will no longer be hands-on.

GMO Safety: This is not the first time the field trials at the HfWU have been destroyed. Does this have an effect on teaching and research?

Kathrin Mendler: Since I’ve been at the university, at least a part of the trials has been destroyed every year. This means that the trials can only be partially evaluated. That’s obviously a shame. We students would really like to know just how great the differences are between conventional and GM maize.

GMO Safety: With the field occupations the GM opponents have put their concerns in the media spotlight and have received a lot of attention as a result. As students and future scientists, are you able to bring your arguments into the debate?

Kathrin Mendler: No. We don’t get the same attention. We sent the open letter to a few local newspapers and when we handed over of the letter, as well as the local press, there was even a regional television team present, which had broadcast several reports on the protesters a few days previously. There wasn’t even a brief report on the television about our campaign, and it was only mentioned in passing in the rest of the press. And the little that was written was wrong. We have not taken a stand either for or against genetic engineering. We support the trials. And yet throughout the press it was reported that students support genetic engineering. Our statements were completely distorted. The media placed us firmly in the supporters’ camp, although that is completely untrue. Even students who are against genetic engineering, but in favour of the research, signed the letter.

GMO Safety: What is your personal view of plant genetic engineering and research in this field?

Kathrin Mendler: At the start of my studies I was completely against it. But I honestly have to admit that I had no idea what it actually entailed and in particular, how it worked. Now my whole outlook has changed somewhat. I still have doubts, but can clearly see the advantages of this technology, and thanks to my studies, I am much better informed. But I can well understand that many people harbour fears. In order to be able to allay or confirm these fears, the technology must be thoroughly researched. And this means in Germany too. This is very important. We mustn’t leave other countries to do all the research. And if the core research findings are put in the public domain, we will get a quite different basis for discussion. This is something that needs to be borne in mind. Without research, we will have nothing to discuss.

GMO Safety: Plant genetic engineering causes quite an emotional response amongst the general public. In your view, how can we deal with this topic in a more constructive way?

Kathrin Mendler: I think that universities have a major responsibility here. Genetic engineering is a complex subject which must be made comprehensible to people so that they know what it is about and can make up their own minds. But the media plays the most significant role here, because much that is reported about genetic engineering is very one-sided. As a rule, only the risks are mentioned in the reporting and the opportunities are played down, if they are referred to at all. If society as a whole were better informed, people could discuss the subject more rationally. I think that the only way to move the genetic engineering debate forward is through close co-operation between research institutes, politics, organisations and the media.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.

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