Blissful Ignorance: How Environmental Activists Shut Down Molecular Biology Labs in High Schools

by Jalees Rehman

Hearing about the HannoverGEN project made me feel envious and excited. Envious, because I wish my high school had offered the kind of hands-on molecular biology training provided to high school students in Hannover, the capital of the German state of Niedersachsen. Excited, because it reminded me of the joy I felt when I first isolated DNA and ran gels after restriction enzyme digests during my first year of university in Munich. I knew that many of the students at the HannoverGEN high schools would be thrilled by their laboratory experience and pursue careers as biologists or biochemists.

DNAWhat did HannoverGEN entail? It was an optional pilot program initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen at four high schools. Students enrolled in the HannoverGEN classes would learn to use molecular biology tools that are typically reserved for college-level or graduate school courses to study plant genetics. Some of the basic experiments involved isolating DNA from cabbage or how bacteria transfer genes to plants, more advanced experiments enabled the students to analyze whether or not the genome of a provided maize sample was genetically modified. Each experimental unit was accompanied by relevant theoretical instruction on the molecular mechanisms of gene expression and biotechnology as well as ethical discussions regarding the benefits and risks of generating genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). You can only check out the details of the HannoverGEN program in the Wayback Machine Internet archive because the award-winning educational program and the associated website were shut down in 2013 at the behest of German anti-GMO activist groups, environmental activists, Greenpeace, the Niedersachsen Green Party and the German organic food industry.

Why did these activists and organic food industry lobbyists oppose a government-funded educational program which improved the molecular biology knowledge and expertise of high school students? A press release entitled “Keine Akzeptanzbeschaffung für Agro-Gentechnik an Schulen!” (“No Acceptance for Agricultural Gene Technology at Schools“) in 2012 by an alliance representing farmers growing natural or organic crops accompanied by the publication of a study with the same title (PDF), funded by this group as well as its anti-GMO partners, gives us some clues. They feared that the high school students might become too accepting of using biotechnology in agriculture and that the curriculum did not sufficiently highlight all the potential dangers of GMOs. By allowing the ethical discussions that were part of the HannoverGEN curriculum to not only discuss the risks but also mention the benefits of genetically modifying crops, students might walk away with the idea that GMOs may be a good thing. Taxpayer money should not be used to foster special interests such as those of the agricultural industry that may want to use GMOs, according to this group.

A response by the University of Hannover (PDF) which had helped develop the curriculum and coordinated the classes for the high school students carefully dissected the complaints of the anti-GMO activists. The author of the “study” with the polemic title that criticized HannoverGEN for being too biased had not visited the HannoverGEN laboratories, nor had he had interviewed the biology teachers or students enrolled in the classes. In fact, his critique was based on weblinks that were not even used by the HannoverGEN teachers or students and his study ignored the fact that discussing potential risks of genetic modification was a core curriculum topic in all the classes.

Unfortunately, this shoddily prepared “study” had a significant impact, in part because it was widely promoted by partner organizations. Its release in the autumn of 2012 came at an opportune time because Niedersachsen was about to have an election and campaigning against GMOs – which apparently included an educational program that would equip students to form a balanced view of GMO technology – seemed like a perfect cause for the Green Party. When the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a coalition after winning the election in early 2013, nixing the HannoverGEN high school program was formally included in the so-called coalition contract. This is a document in which coalition partners outline the key goals for the upcoming four year period. When one considers how many major issues and problems the government of a large German state has to face – healthcare, education, unemployment, etc. – it is mindboggling that defunding a program involving only four high schools receives so much attention that it needs to be anchored in the coalition contract. In fact, it is a testimony to the influence and zeal of the anti-GMO lobby.

Once the cancellation of HannoverGEN was announced, the Hannover branch of Greenpeace also took credit for campaigning against this high school program and celebrated its victory. A Greenpeace anti-GMO activist also highlighted that he felt the program was too cost intensive because equipping high school laboratories with state-of-the-art molecular biology equipment had already cost more than 1 million Euros and that the previous center-right government which had initiated the HannoverGEN project was planning on expanding the program to even more high schools, thus wasting more taxpayer money.

The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists themselves were representing special interests, including the lucrative organic food industry. Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles in which they asked how squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could ever lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive formal education and could make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry did not make much of a difference and it did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.

In 2014, the government of Niedersachsen then announced that they would resurrect an advanced biology laboratory program for high schools with the generic and vague title “Life Science Lab”. By removing the word “Gen” from its title and also removing any discussion of GMOs in the curriculum, this new program would leave students in the dark about GMOs. One could thus avoid a scenario in which high school students might learn about benefits of GMOs. Ignorance is bliss from an anti-GMO activist perspective because the void of ignorance can be filled with fear.

From the very first day that I could vote in Germany during the federal election of 1990, I always viewed the Green Party as a party that represented my generation. A party of progressive ideas, concerned about our environment and social causes. However, the HannoverGEN incident is just one example of how the Green Party is caving in to ideologies thus losing its open-mindedness and progressive nature. In the United States, the anti-science movement, which attacks teaching climate change science or evolutionary biology at schools, tends to be rooted in the right wing political spectrum. Right wingers or libertarians are the ones who always complain about taxpayer dollars being wasted and used to promote agendas in schools and universities. But we should not forget that there is also a different anti-science movement rooted in the leftist and pro-environmental political spectrum – not just in Germany.

I worry about all anti-science movements, especially those which attack science education. There is nothing wrong with questioning special interests and ensuring that school and university science curricula are truly balanced. But they need to be balanced and founded on scientific principles, not on political ideologies. Science education has a natural bias – it is biased towards knowledge that is backed up by scientific evidence. We can hypothetically discuss dangers of GMOs but the science behind the dangers of GMO crops is very questionable. Just like environmental activists and leftists agree with us scientists that we do not need to give climate change deniers and creationists “balanced” treatment in our science curricula, they should also accept that much of the “anti-GMO science” is currently more based on ideology than on actual scientific data. Our job is to provide excellent science education so that our students can critically analyze and understand scientific research, independent of whether or not it supports our personal ideologies.

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