Germany legislates protection from transgenic crops

BERLIN, Germany, November 29, 2004 (ENS): The lower house of the German Parliament has approved a new law that protects consumers and farmers against the risks of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops. Led by the Social Democratic and Green parties, the legislators adopted a measure based on the principle that growers of transgenic crops are financially liable for economic damage caused if their crops contaminate organic or conventionally grown products.

The new law, passed on Friday, provides that when organic or conventional farmers cannot sell their products due to the presence of GM material, the neighboring farmers growing GM crops are liable.

The measure now must pass the upper house of parliament. The parliamentary procedure is likely to be completed by the end of 2004, the German Agriculture Ministry said.

Growers of genetically modified crops have an obligation to take precautionary action to prevent "material negative effects" of of their crops, in particular compliance with "good farming practice" in the cultivation of GM crops, the law provides.

A "material negative effect" arises, the law provides, if:

  • products cannot be placed on the market because of cross-contamination with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This situation may arise where owing to cross-contamination with GMOs released, for example, in a field trial, a neighboring farmer can no longer market his products because they contain traces of GMOs that have not been authorized to be placed on the market.
  • owing to cross-contamination with GMOs a neighboring farmer is obliged to label his produce as "genetically modified," or
  • owing to the presence of GMOs, a neighboring farmer is no longer able to label his produce as "organic" or as produced "without genetic modification" within the meaning of German legislation

Under European Union legislation, all food and feed containing, consisting of or produced from GMOs must be labeled "genetically modified." If the content of genetically modified material amounts to less than 0.9 percent of the relevant ingredient, labeling is not mandatory if the presence of the material is unintended or technically unavoidable.

If it is not clear which farmer has caused the contamination, the principle of joint liability of all neighboring GMO farmers will apply. That means a farmer who has sustained damage will be free to decide which neighbor to claim compensation from.

A register with precise information about where GM crops are intended to be released will be publicly available. The site register will let farmers farmers know exactly where in their neighborhoods GM crops are being cultivated.

The law limits the area where genetically modified plants can be grown in Germany.

Farmers planting GM seeds will be required to adhere to strict regulations, including the requirement that a minimum distance be kept from non-GM fields. They must take steps to prevent the spread of pollen from GM plants.

"In the interest of farmers and consumers, we do not want genetically altered foods to sneak uncontrolled and initially unnoticed onto our grocery shelves," said Herta Däubler-Gmelin, a parliamentarian from the SPD.

Conservative opposition politicians and agricultural interests argue that the restrictions will make it difficult for any farmers to grow genetically modified crops.

Friends of the Earth says the law's provisions will give GM farmers and GM operators a strong incentive not to contaminate neighboring fields, helping to ensure the freedom of choice for the majority of consumers in Germany and the European Union who do not want to eat GM foods.

Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth Europe said, “This law is good news for hundreds of millions of Europeans who do not wish to participate in the biggest biological experiment of our time and who want to eat food that is GM free. This law should now be the benchmark for similar legislation in other EU member states.”

There are loopholes in the law, including the fact that it does not really cover damage to the environment as a result of GM crops. The protection that the law offers for ecologically sensitive zones is restricted to Natura 2000 areas, which only form 2.5 percent of the surface of Germany.

Friends of the Earth is concerned that the European Commission might want to overrule the German law by taking Germany to the European Court of Justice. In a document from July 2004 leaked to the organization, the Commission hinted that it might consider this type of action.

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