Schooling in Germany (Frankfurt, Dortmund, Lubeck); Science ‘A levels’ (Abitur) – including biology, physics and maths University of Kiel (Germany) 1979-1985; Kings College Hospital, University College London / University of London: 1988-1994
BSc (German version) botany, zoology, ecology and physics. MSc (German version) in Biology specializing in developmental biology and cyto-genetics. PhD at the University of London in molecular genetics, specialising in gene regulation.
Research scientist in university and hospital settings, both in Germany and the UK (1982-1995). Kings College Hospital [1988-1991]: researched gene mutations giving rise to haemophilia (blood clotting disease). From 1996 till now: non-government participant in the international UN negotiations, in particular under the Convention on Biological Diversity, its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA); and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and have served on
Co-director of Econexus. Representative of the Federation of German Scientists at international negotiations. Researcher, science advisor and consultant for civil society organizations and within the UN system, and as a guest lecturer in many countries.
I work as a self employed consultant
I am a biologist and a (molecular) geneticist, working on sustainable agriculture and on issues related to risks of genetically modified (GM) organisms, such as crops, trees, fish or insects.
I am based in the UK (Oxford), but work internationally including at UN negotiations and expert committees as well as with small scale farmers, local communities and civil society in the global South (especially Africa and Asia).
I’ve worked for four years now in the international technical expert group on risk assessment and risk management under the UN Biosafety Protocol. We just finished our guidelines for risk assessment, including for GM trees, GM mosquitoes and for monitoring of long term effects.
Underlying these guidelines is the precautionary principle which stipulates that if there is a risk of unacceptable or irreversible harm to the environment or human health, the lack of full scientific knowledge or consensus should not be taken as an excuse to delay actions in order to prevent such harm. To the contrary, it obligates the decision maker to practice precaution in the context of such uncertainty. This is also enshrined in EU law.
The Precautionary Principle is more essential than ever in a world that moves swiftly and where people feel as if they have control of technologies and knowledge. Precaution allows pause for thought; looking at recent history, we see so many places where the application of precaution would have been helpful – including asbestos, thalidomide, PCBs, mad cow disease. We should apply the precautionary principle rigorously before committing ourselves to new technologies that introduce new risks to the biosphere, including human health.
My Typical Day
I don’t pin my ‘hopes’ or ‘fears’ on any one technology but try to stick to evidence.
The ‘hopes’ & ‘fears for GM’ question could be considered leading questions. As the questions are put, they lead the reader to link scientifically based concerns about GM with the negative emotion, ‘fear’, and link the pro-GM stance with the feelgood word ‘hope’. I don’t pin my ‘hopes’ or ‘fears’ on any one technology but try to stick to evidence. This requires – particularly for scientists – that I set aside my emotional responses of hope and fear in order to be able to challenge assumptions and preferences, especially my own, and accept whatever the evidence tells me, always recognising that every hypothesis only holds good until it is successfully challenged by new insights and new evidence.
It is important to first investigate the problem we are trying to solve and whether there are other, perhaps more appropriate, safer and cheaper means to do so.
Modern biotechnology is so much more than just GM crops and food. For sure, genetic engineering – or genetic modification – is a very good research tool that we have long applied in contained settings to gain further knowledge about how genes, metabolic pathways, organisms and external factors work and interact. The problems arise when we try to turn it from a research tool to an application that is released into the environment. And also when we think of genes as the main determinants, when they are only one factor in a dynamic relationship between the genes, the organism itself, and its environment over time.
Modern biotechnology and genetic modification are often mentioned as if they were the same, whereas they are quite different. The use of genome sequencing combined with marker assisted breeding have both utilised tools of modern biotechnology but neither of these methods are GM because they do not involve direct intervention to force changes of the genome. These non-GM methods have already led to the production of stress tolerant crops such as flood tolerant rice, drought tolerant maize and virus resistant cassava, or nutritionally altered crops, such as vitamin A-rich millet and maize.
So, having questioned the question, now here are some of my hopes & fears.
– That we find the courage to take up the agro-ecological system approach, making use of biodiversity and ecosystem functions, of sustainable farming practices and appropriate technologies. In the right combination this offers a healthy and plentiful food supply without a heavy ecological footprint.
– That we will really try to address our current problems honestly and openly, recognising that technologies are incredibly valuable for analysis and for improving our understanding but do not necessarily provide solutions to our problems.
– That we can provide a healthy, plentiful food supply under the control of farmers and communities.
What I'd do with the prize money
There are good scientific reasons to use caution with GM crops and to look into sustainable and effective alternatives, such as agroecology.
(See also intro para for ‘hopes’).
My fear is that the desire for being regarded as a champion of ‘progress’ will tempt people to believe in silver bullets and opt for technological fixes, ignoring the appropriate scientific discourse of problem and cause, identification and analysis. We have a complex situation with a number of problems to solve, and underlying causes cannot be treated with silver bullets. They rather make matters worse.
I am concerned that myths are being projected as real, against actual reality and despite evidence to the contrary, including that GM offers higher yield, reduces pesticide use, is proven safe, offers better livelihoods for small farmers.
I worry about the phenomenon of denial in the face of very difficult challenges such as climate change and the depletion of soil and water.
I am concerned about claims that genetically modified crops can co-exist with conventional and organic crops of the same species. Gene flow of transgenes – often referred to as GM contamination – is a very common phenomenon. It happens at the level of food, e.g. through mix ups in the supply chain and during processing, and at the biological level, eg through cross pollination, out crossing, seed dispersal, seed mix-up, lack or failure of segregation. Yet there is the notion that co-existence is possible. The evidence shows, for example, that co-existence between non-GM and GM oilseed rape in Canada is not possible; the production of organic oilseed rape in Canada was rendered impossible by contamination from GM OSR.
Evidence also clearly shows that the use of pesticides, in particular herbicides, has increased greatly due to the large scale introduction of herbicide tolerant GM crops – with identified negative impacts on the environment, health, including human health, biodiversity and soil. Furthermore we now have a major problem in the US with herbicide tolerant weeds that have to be removed by hand.
Evidence also shows the emergence of insect pests resistant to the inbuilt Bt toxin of GM crops, the emergence of secondary pests, and the negative impact on non-target insects, including pest predators
Problems and negative impacts have also been identified in animal feeding trials.
Instead of using all this accumulating evidence as a trigger for further investigation or the application of the precautionary principle, fingers are being pointed at those that find that evidence and raise concern.
This is an approach to science that we can ill afford when dealing with technologies that have clear risks associated with them.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
engaged, curious, playful
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
To become a participant in the UN Biosafety Protocol negotiations from the onset (it taught me a lot).
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Looking out to wild and boundless sea
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Depending on my mood my favourites include: I Robot, Groundhog Day, North by Northwest
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
to be immersed in an intense and wondrous underwater research expedition; to go on more kayaking/canoeing outings; to miraculously understand and speak all languages so that I could communicate with anyone in the world and could read poetry in its original language.