German GM wheat trials continue

Activists have destroyed several field trial sites, but Syngenta is determined to press on

Apr 13, 2004
Ned Stafford(scientistnews@yahoo.com )

Global agribusiness firm Syngenta has replanted genetically modified (GM) wheat in a test field in Germany that was recently damaged by environmental activists, with the firm now vowing to protect the freshly sown field until harvest later this summer.

Rainer Linneweber, spokesman for Syngenta's German subsidiary, Syngenta Agro, told The Scientist that the prime reason for conducting the GM wheat test in Germany was to gather scientific data.

But Linneweber added: "Also, it is a possible signal to the rest of the world: Look, GM trial fields are possible, even in Germany." The country has recently come under attack for the way it regulates GM farming.

In March, Syngenta planted wheat that had been genetically modified to resist fusarium fungus on two fields in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The environmental organization Greenpeace strongly opposed the plantings, and on March 29, around 130 activists invaded the farm fields and planted nearly 5 metric tons of what they described as organic wheat.

Linneweber said company experts inspected the fields and determined that one was destroyed for the current growing season, but that the other field could be prepared for a fresh planting of GM wheat. The 30-by-40 meter field was re-sown last Tuesday (April 6), under the protection of 30 police officers.

Linneweber said that Syngenta last year had planted GM wheat in a test field in Thuringia, but that the field also was destroyed by activists planting other varieties of wheat.

The company moved to test fields in Saxony-Anhalt because of strong support from the state government, Linneweber said. The state last autumn announced a so-called "biotechnology offensive" in which it will spend €100 million in the next 5 years in support of biotech research and business.

Henning Strodthoff, gene technology expert at Greenpeace in Hamburg, told The Scientist that Greenpeace was particularly worried about the introduction of GM wheat into the food chain because of the crop's importance as a world food staple. Canadian regulators have also triggered fierce opposition by considering whether to approved GM wheat developed by Monsanto.

Greenpeace is skeptical that the damaged field used by Syngenta to replant GM wheat can yield solid results for this crop season, Strodthoff said. The company may be hoping simply to be able to harvest the field late this summer to prove that field tests can be done in Germany, he said.

On the other hand, Linneweber said Syngenta would not have replanted the field unless it thought the field was capable of producing only GM wheat that would be suitable for scientific research.

Linneweber conceded that it would be difficult to protect the field from activists until harvest in late August or September, but the company has taken security steps, which he declined to publicly describe. The company also will pursue criminal or civil legal actions against activists, if necessary, he said.

If the replanted field is destroyed before harvest, Linneweber said, "it would be a really serious situation." The company would consider whether to try again next year.