Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.09.2003

Un enlightened in Europe:Swiss biologist takes on GM opponents byGraeme O'Neili

Klaus Amman: battling for rationality in GM debate and family link to USA Amish.

KLAUS AMMAN confesses he is very worried about fanatical opposition to genetically modified crops and foods in Europe.

Professor Amman, director of Switzerland's Bern Botanic Gardens, and one of Europe's most prominent defenders of the 'New Agriculture', says, "There is no rationality anymore in the debate with these people, and we should be seriously worried."

The GRDC sponsored the Swiss botanist's recent visit to Australia to speak at the special delegates' forum on GM crops and foods at the 19th International Congress of Genetics.

Professor Amman also gave a talk at the Congress describing his extensive review of the research literature, in which he found no evidence that GM crops and foods had any greater adverse effect on human health and the environment than their conventional equivalents.

He told Ground Cover that while the United States, Australia and Canada may have been legally justified in taking the European Union to the World Trade Organisation for its refusal to accept imports of genetically modified foods, the action had been brought at the worst possible time.

There was a "substratum of anxiety" among Europeans, and a view that biology had lost its innocence. "All progress is questioned today. Many Europeans have had enough of technology. They have a very strong desire to go back to their roots, to the old ways. The romantic notion of 'naturalness' is very strong.

"We should be trying to build their understanding and confidence gently. The level of anxiety will certainly take some years to subside. We have seen the same thing historically, with fears over the introduction of coffee, pasteurisation and hybrid crops."

What also distinguishes the current debate, says Professor Amman, is that it is being stirred by a global protest movement that has taken advantage of community anxiety in "an absolutely professional way".

Professor Amman says he has deliberately accused the European wings of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth of lying, in the hope of engaging them in the courts, but without success.

He explains the organised antiGM movement in Europe in terms of an anti-corporate, antimultinational agenda. Professor Amman agrees with Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, who left the organisation in disgust more than a decade after dedicated Marxists infiltrated and subverted environmental NGOs like Greenpeace in Europe.

Related to Pennsylvannia Amish

Professor Amman, who founded one of the best-known Web forums on GM agriculture, became involved in the debate 15 years ago.

His first love is botany - "I knew when I was six that I wanted to be a botanist" - but he has had a series of scientific careers.

When a colleague, microbiologist Edward Kellenberg, established a club called EcoGene to monitor biosafety research, Amman joined, and began investigating gene flow through pollen drift - which led him inexorably into the GM crops debate.

He empathises with the concerns of consumers and organic farmers - but not with activists who employ violent tactics, vandalise GM crops and farm machinery, and spread lies about GM agriculture.

Professor Amman proudly claims descent from Jakob Amman, the Swiss founder of the Amish religious sect in"Pennsylvania, famously featured in Australian director Peter Weir's thriller movie Witness.

The deeply religious Amish, who live simple, frugal lives and shun much of modern tech-nology, are organic farmers - but their views are very different from those of organic farmers in Europe and Australia.

Several years ago the Amish of Lancaster County, in Pennsylvania, where Witness was filmed, invited Amman to participate in a community debate on GM crops.

"After the debate, I was absolutely stunned when they said to me, 'Well, Klaus, why don't you organise some transgenic crops for us? We want to try them out.'"

Amish farmers are now growing transgenic tobacco and potato varieties protected by the Bt insecticide gene.

Amman explains that the Amish are pragmatists, and secure in their religious beliefs and traditions. Also, "they're the descendants of Swiss, and money talks".

Professor Klaus Amman's Bern Debates are distributed through www.agbioworld.com