New German law on gene crops a 'de-facto ban'
Opposition and some farmers say green biotechnology regulations make agricultural genetic engineering impossible

December 3, 2004, Kristina Merkner, , A new law that takes effect next year will allow farmers to cultivate genetically modified organisms on German fields. A victory for farmers against Greenpeace, it seems. But farmers and plant breeders are not happy about the new law, which they say will actually keep farmers from exploiting the potential of gene splicing.

"In essential aspects, the law bears the handwriting of the Green coalition partner," said the managing director of Germany's association of plant breeders (BDP), Ferdinand Schmitz, referring to the Green party. "Its goal is to prevent genetic engineering. It's another setback for Germany as an innovative business location," Schmitz said.

The law on genetic engineering in agriculture, which parliament passed last Friday, was drafted by Agriculture Minister Renate K¸nast of the Green party. On paper, it allows the commercial cultivation of genetically modified organisms. In practice, however, little will change, since the risks to farmers are too high.

The law, which will take effect in January, entitles conventional farmers to claim compensation if their crops are contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

Contamination takes place when conventional plants are pollinated from genetically modified crops in a nearby field. If the culprit cannot be identified, all non-conventional farmers in the area will be held liable. Since cross-pollination cannot be ruled out even if minimum distances are adhered to, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) fears that the regulations will keep German farmers from experimenting with genetically modified cultivation.

Genetically modified crops, which are resistant to herbicides, are common in other countries such as Argentina and the United States, where one-third of all corn crops are genetically modified. The only EU country that has already introduced commercial gene splicing is Spain, where around 20,000 hectares of modified corn are being cultivated.

In Germany, 60 percent of DBV's farmers have now said in a survey that the liability risk will keep them from cultivating genetically modified plants. At the same time, two-thirds of them said gene splicing was necessary to remain competitive. "As a consequence of the law, research and development activities will not be undertaken, which are necessary to examine the opportunities and risks of green biotechnology without prejudice," said DBV president Gerd Sonnleitner.

While the law was being drafted, he had suggested that farmers could not be held liable if they adhered to certain security standards and that conventional farmers would in such cases be compensated out of a common fund maintained by all farmers and plant breeders.

Schmitz said that German farmers will earn between Euro 30 and Euro 50 less per hectare if they stick to conventional plants. "There is also reason to fear that research and development activities will be relocated abroad."

Similar concerns had been voiced in the Bundesrat, the German parliamentary chamber representing the federal states. Baden-W¸rttemberg's state premier, Erwin Teufel, called the law a "de-facto ban" on green biotechnology. The Bundesrat parliamentary chamber of state representatives also criticized the law, which aims to fulfill an EU directive calling for clear rules on the coexistence of genetically modified and conventional crops. The opposition Christian Democrats, which control the Bundesrat, said the government clearly overshot the mark since the law prevents rather than enables the coexistence of conventional and genetically modified crops in Germany.

But on Friday, the German parliament overturned the Bundesrat's decision to reject the law. Since the law does not directly concern the federal states, the Bundestag parliament was able to pass it without the consent of the Bundesrat. The federal state of Saxony-Anhalt has already said that it would take the law to the constitutional court, and the EU commission has voiced doubts that the law is in keeping with the underlying directive. A ray of hope for Schmitz, who is "confident that the last word on the law on genetic engineering has not been spoken."

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