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German minister okays GM crops

Biotech representatives praise the move, a shift from previous government sentiment

By | December 22, 2005

Germany's new food, agriculture, and consumer protection minister, Horst Seehofer, has announced strong support for genetically modified (GM) agriculture and crop research, a sharp reversal of the negative GM sentiment of his predecessor.

The shift in government thinking within Germany could have implications for European Union policy, as Germany is the EU's largest nation and also home to a strong anti-GM movement. Seed companies have made no secret of the fact that they see Germany as a key battleground in their quest to win global support for GM crops.

Seehofer voiced his support for GM crops and research in unusually strong language during a newspaper interview, whose publication triggered a flood of public statements from both GM supporters and opponents.

Specifically, Seehofer said the Agriculture Ministry would quit giving preferential treatment to organic farmers, as had been the case under former Agriculture Minister and Green party member Renate Künast. Seehofer said he also plans to encourage GM technology in Germany, noting that genetically modified plants had become more prevalent throughout the world. "This must also be possible in Germany," he said to the daily Berliner Zeitung.

Former Agriculture Minister Künast – ousted by the change in Germany's leadership after national elections in September -- supported a new, highly restrictive GM crops law that was heavily criticized by Germany's bioscience community, who saw it as a major blow to science and industry. EU officials hinted that the German law had gone too far.

W. Eberhard Weber, head of the Department of Plant Breeding and Plant Protection at Martin-Luther-University at Halle-Wittenberg, told The Scientist that Seehofer's recent comments had been widely discussed -- and praised -- within Germany's bioscience community and biotech sector. The restrictive GM law supported by Künast "is still valid, but we are now assuming the law will be changed (to be more supportive of GM crops and research)," he said.

Weber said Künast had instituted a de facto ban of GM crop research on federal lands, and this will change next spring under Seehofer. "We also believe it will be possible now to get more funds for (GM) research programs," Weber said.

Bettina Sánchez Bergmann, head of the bio- and gene-technology department of the Federal Association of German Plant Breeders, whose members include subsidiaries of the global seed giants, told The Scientist that GM research "outside the lab" had been extremely difficult and bureaucratic under Künast. Under Seehofer, "we think the conditions will be easier for scientists," she predicted.

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Mettler Toledo
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