A strict German law to protect GM-free agriculture followed by majority votes against lifting bans on GM food and feed. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Rhea Gala
German Agriculture Minister Renate Kunäst hailed as a major victory a new highly restrictive genetically modified (GM) crops law passed by the German Parliament on 26 November 2004. The new law requires GM crop growers to publicly register the exact location of fields, and holds those planting GM crops liable for economic damages to neighbouring non-GM fields even if planting instructions and other regulations were followed.
Ms Kunäst praised the new law as a success for consumer protection and for farmers who want to cultivate GM-free. "Germany is one of the first EU countries to create a legal framework for the protection of GM-free agriculture," she said. Germany was in a hurry after the EU Commission cancelled Europe's de facto moratorium on GMOs, she added, and urgently needed regulations to protect GM-free agriculture against contamination.
The new law introduces the principle that GM farmers and GM operators are financially liable for economic damage caused if their crops contaminate non-GM products. It takes a proactive stance against GMOs, and protects organic farms and non-GM conventional farms against insidious dominance of GMOs. It also protects ecologically sensitive zones against transgenic contamination. It lays down rules for good professional practice such as minimum separation distances, documentation, and use of GMO fertilizers. And companies are bound by law to inform growers about compliance with the demands of good professional practice by means of an instruction leaflet; and are liable for incorrect product information.
Reaction to the new law is mixed. Dr Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, chairman of the Federation of the Organic Food Industry (BÖLW), is happy with the result. "We think it is especially important that the liability for damage caused by cross-breeding and mixing are clearly assigned to the genetic engineering users". He also suggested that the new law would act as a signal for other European countries.
In contrast, the German Farmers Association (DBV) criticized the decision of the parliament, a DBV press report advised all farmers not to cultivate GMOs because co-existence is not achievable.
Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth (FoE), 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".
The law received a predictably negative response from the bioscience community, where German researchers and industry said that liability for economic damage will create a financial risk that some German universities, research organizations and companies will not take.
Mark Stitt, managing director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology said "I think the law, as it now stands, will have a detrimental effect on innovation in Germany Firms will be leaving Germany". He said that the law goes far beyond EU GM law that allows non-GM plants to be contaminated with up to 0.9 percent of pollen from neighbouring GM plants.
However, in Germany, "bio" (organic) products must contain less than 0.1 percent of GM contamination to retain the bio stamp.
Jens A Katzek, CEO of BIO Mitteldeutschland GmbH, which promotes the biotech industry in central Germany said that his own state, Saxony-Anhalt, has already announced that it will challenge the new law in the federal court.
The law also contains loopholes that need improvement; and, most importantly, hardly covers damage to the environment caused by GM crops. The protection offered to ecologically sensitive zones only covers 'Nature 2000' areas that are only 2.5 percent of the area of Germany.
FoE is also concerned that the European Commission might overrule the German law by taking Germany to the European Court of Justice. In a leaked document (available from FoE) dated June 2004, the Commission has already hinted at this. But the EC suffered a setback in trying to force European countries to lift their bans on GMOs.
On 30 November 1004, EU environmental experts voted by a large majority against proposals to overturn the bans on genetically modified (GM) crops in five countries; the group also failed to reach a majority decision on clearing a GM crop ingredient for the European food chain.
The group rejected proposals from the European Commission calling for five European countries - Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg - to repeal their bans on specific GMOs within 20 days.
The bans, introduced between 1997 and 2000, involved three maize and two rapeseed varieties approved before the EU began its unofficial biotech ban in 1998 that ended earlier this year.
Every single one of the Commission's proposals failed to get the required qualified majority of 232 votes out of 321.
The results, representing a majority against GM, were as follows:
On lifting the bans on Syngenta's Bt176 maize in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg: in favour, 54 votes; against, 221 votes; abstained, 46 votes
On lifting the ban on Bayer's T25 maize in Austria; in favour, 54 votes; against, 221 votes; abstained, 46 votes
On lifting the ban on Monsanto's MON810 maize in Austria: in favour, 73 votes; against, 178 votes; abstained, 70 votes
On lifting the ban on Bayer's oilseed rape Topas 19/2 in France and Greece: in favour, 54 votes; against, 178 votes; abstained, 89 votes
On lifting the ban on Bayer's oilseed rape MS1xRf1 in France: in favour, 54 votes; against, 178 votes; abstained: 89 votes
The Commission's proposals are seen as a direct result of the trade dispute in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) started last year by the United States, Argentina and Canada. The three countries claim that Europe's precautionary stance on GM food, including the national bans, are a barrier to free trade and harm their farmers. The WTO has set up a three-person panel currently meeting in secret to decide the case, with the final verdict expected next year.
The Commission's proposals will now go to a Council of Ministers meeting in the new year. If no decision is taken after three months, as is likely, the Commission can adopt it under a legal loophole.
Despite tough new European rules enforced in April to track and label GMOs, food makers are opting to skip GM ingredients in Europe because they know the European consumer will refuse to buy GM food products.
At the same meeting, the environmental experts failed, again, to allow Monsanto's genetically modified maize MON 863 for import and processing into the EU. MON 863 was cleared earlier this year by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA); but two months ago member states failed to give it the green light.
On 20 December, EU environment ministers blocked the approval of Monsanto's GM oilseed rape GT73 with a vote of 135 against, 78 for, and 108 abstentions. Member State experts had already failed to reach agreement on this in June 2004, and the opposition vote appeared to have grown since.
The United Kingdom was among the abstentions. Its official advisors on GM foods and feeds were "not satisfied with the explanation that Monsanto has provided for the observed increased liver weight in rats fed GT73" and. are not convinced by EFSA's assurance that GT 73 "is as safe as conventional oilseed rape for humans and animals, and in the context of the proposed uses, for the environment."
Article first published 11/01/05
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