GM law 'a blow for science'

German researchers and industry decry a new crop law as being detrimental to innovation

Dec 1, 2004
Ned Stafford(

The final passage of a highly restrictive genetically modified (GM) crops law is being hailed as a major victory by German Agriculture Minister Renate Künast, but the bioscience community and biotech sector see the new legislation as a blow to German science and industry.

Among the most controversial aspects of the new law are clauses holding planters of GM crops liable for economic damages to adjacent non-GM fields even if they followed planting instructions and other regulations. Opponents say this will create a financial risk some German universities, research organizations, and companies will not take.

Mark Stitt, managing director at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, told The Scientist: "I think the law, as it now stands, is going to have a very detrimental effect on innovation in Germany."

"Germany has potentially one of the most flourishing bioscience industries in the world," Stitt said. "But now, research will be leaving Germany. Firms will be leaving Germany."

"I have no problem with liability," Stitt said. "If you do something wrong, you should pay for it. But with this law, you have liability without blame. This is an absolutely impossible situation."

The new law had a rocky ride through the German legislative process. It was passed in June by the Bundestag, Germany's lower house, with strong backing of the Greens, a junior coalition partner of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD party. The law was then nullified in early November by the Bundesrat, or upper house, which is controlled by a slim majority of opposition parties. However, the opposition was not able to muster the two thirds vote needed to kill the law, throwing it back into the Bundestag for an ultimate vote.

In the decisive Bundestag vote on Friday (November 26), Schröder's SPD party held ranks with the Greens, with a slim majority voting to resuscitate the law. It will now take effect on January 1.

Stitt said the law goes far beyond EU GM law, which he called "sensible and reasonable." He noted that EU law allows non-GM plants to be "contaminated" with up to 0.9% of pollen from neighboring GM plants, while the German law is purposefully vague, saying that non-GM farmers who suffer a decline in the value of crops due to contamination can seek reimbursement. In Germany, so-called "bio" products must contain less than 0.1% GM contamination in order to obtain the bio stamp, Stitt said.

"This law has gone far beyond what is necessary," Stitt said. He noted that Syngenta, the world biggest agro-chemicals group, based in Basel, announced that it had halted all its European field trials of GM plants and seed material varieties because of public resistance and had moved the programs to the United States. Earlier this year, anti-GM activists in Germany destroyed GM wheat fields coordinated by Syngenta.

Jens A. Katzek, chief executive officer of BIO Mitteldeutschland GmbH, which promotes the biotechnological industry in central Germany, told The Scientist that any farmer, researcher, firm, or organization considering planting GM crops now must decide whether to risk the possible economic consequences.

"This law is going to have dramatic consequences," Katzek said. "Planting GM crops in Germany is now an economic risk. Simply an economic risk."

Katzek said that his home state, Saxony-Anhalt, has already announced it will challenge the new law in federal court. During the past year, Saxony-Anhalt has been promoting itself as a biotechnology center, which has included helping to coordinate a major GM corn project.

An aspect of the law Katzek finds especially worrying is a clause that requires GM crop planters to publicly register exact location of fields. Proponents of the clause said that non-GM farmers have the right to know if neighboring fields contain GM crops.