Conférence « Now it’s safe – now it’s not – The biased reporting about new (and old) genetic engineering techniques »


« Now it’s safe – now it’s not – The biased reporting about new (and old) genetic engineering techniques »

Angelika Hilbeck

(Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland)


8 janvier 2019



ENS – 29 rue d’Ulm – 75005 Paris
235 C (Bâtiment Jaurès, 2ème étage, ascenseur)


organisée par Giuseppe Longo


In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (Case C-528/16) ruled that organisms obtained by directed mutagenesis techniques are to be regarded as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within the meaning of Directive 2001/18. The ruling marked the next round of the dispute around agricultural genetic engineering in Europe. Many of the pros and cons presented in this dispute are familiar from the debate around the first generation of genetic engineering techniques. The current wave of enthusiasm for the new genetic engineering methods, with its claim to make good on the failed promises of the previous wave, seems to point more to an admission of failure of the last generation of genetic engineering than to a true change of paradigm. Sweeping undocumented claims of safety derived from postulates of control through precision are reminiscent of the early days of first generation of genetic engineering tools – as are the overblown and similarly undocumented promises of future products. Regulation is being portrayed as a ban on research and application, which is factually incorrect, and the judges of the European Court of Justice are being defamed as espousing pseudoscience. Meanwhile, however, news broke from China where the same genetic engineering tools were applied in a human context, with a completely opposite safety narrative emerging. According to this opposite narrative, these new tools are by far not as precise as described for example by plant molecular geneticists. They entail a great deal of uncertainty, imprecision and serious safety concerns – the exact opposite of what has been put forward by molecular geneticists in the media. For example, a ‘Der Spiegel’ article in September 2018 reported that 75 European research institutions (although actually only individuals signed) call for an exemption of these new GMOs from regulations and oversight claiming that “organisms” obtained by applying new genetic engineering techniques are “at least as safe as if they were derived from classical breeding”. In the dispute over promise and peril, science and nuanced debates gets lost or as others have put it: we have lost the ‘honest broker’ scientists.



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