Automatgenererad bild.

28 January 2016

Mistra Biotech gets another 50 million kronor

The Mistra Biotech programme, with its all-round approach to plant breeding and attitudes towards genetically modified crops, has received Mistra’s go-ahead for a second phase. In the next four years, the researchers hope to be able to present not only new oilseeds and better potato varieties, but also to pave the way for modern legislation on plant improvement.

‘It’s nice that we’ve been engaged to keep going. The research we’re doing, especially the scientific part, calls for tenacity to achieve results,’ says Programme Director Sven Ove Hansson, a philosophy professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

The programme he heads is truly interdisciplinary. Its purpose is to develop new methods of plant breeding and new crops with improved properties, but also to investigate attitudes towards and legislation concerning genetically modified crops (or genetically modified organisms, GMOs). The programme gathers scientists, philosophers, lawyers and other social scientists under the same research umbrella. Sven Ove Hansson sounds surprised when he relates how well the collaboration has gone.

‘We’ve established unique understanding of one another’s research. This is one of the most important results of our first four years and something we’ve deliberately fostered. This work has, of course, been favoured by the basic existence of genuine interest in and respect for one another’s areas of knowledge. But we’ve initially had seminars where everyone described their own research,’ Hansson says.

New view of attitudes towards GMOs

The research is thus a matter of investigating opportunities, but also risks, of genetic modification (GM). One finding is that Europeans’ and Americans’ attitudes towards GMOs do not differ as much as used to be thought. The differences have arisen because the questions in questionnaire surveys have been formulated differently. This result is important. These assumed attitude differences, in particular, have contributed to the wide divergence in adjudication between the US and Europe (there is no great difference in the nature of their legislation). This, in turn, means that store shelves in the US — but not in Europe — are heavily laden with products containing ingredients that have undergone GM.

‘It’s an example of the consumer research we’ve carried out,’ Hansson says.

One example of newly published research is the licentiate thesis by Payam Moula, the KTH philosopher, in which he investigated ethical aspects of GM. In his view, the argument that genetically modified food is harmful to health is untenable, and he refers to a solid research foundation for precisely the opposite. In his opinion, it is even unethical to work against genetically modified food when food shortages are so acute in some parts of the world.

‘To support Earth’s population in 2050, we’re going to need to double the quantity of food produced, on roughly the same land area as today. So allowing genetically modified food is our moral obligation,’ says Payam Moula.

New oilseeds being developed

But Mistra Biotech also rests heavily on purely scientific research and here, in many cases, it is in the frontline. When it comes to plant breeding, the programme researchers have advanced far in experimentation on the oilweed Lepidium campestre (field pepperwort or field pepperweed), both in the form of traditional plant breeding and through GM. They are seeking to develop varieties of the plant containing more oil, and oil of better quality, in which the seeds are allowed to become larger and contain more oil without falling to the ground.

The researchers are also on their way to developing new potato varieties with enhanced nutritional properties and resistance to mildew.

‘We hope to be able to complete it in the next four years,’ Sven Ove Hansson says.

Another issue, drawing up documentation for new, updated legislation, is high up on the to-do list.

‘The law concerning plant breeding is based on what we knew in the 1970s. It takes very little account of what happened after that,’ Hansson says.

Text: Thomas Heldmark

Mistra Webbredaktör