Seven years lost for genetic engineering (15/9/2005)

More bleating from the industry who are desperately hoping that the upcoming German elections will deliver an aggressively rightwing government sympathetic to their interests. Fortunately, it's far from clear that the "German Margaret Thatcher" and her admirers will sweep the board in the way the biotech brigade have been hoping.

Seven years lost for genetic engineering
S. Hofmann
Handelsblatt, September 14, 2005
Translated by Katharina Schoebi, Checkbiotech

In mid-July, Monsanto Germany saw no other option other than to go through the courts. The German subsidiary of the US [] parent company filed suit at the administration court in Hannover to finally force a decision from the German Federal Cultivation Office on maize MON 810.

There have already been several years of tug-of-war surrounding the issue of the genetically altered maize variety. MON 810 is equipped with a gene that renders the maize resistant against the European corn borer, a dreaded pest.

Already in 1999, the EU approved the maize variety. However, in Germany, approval from the Federal Cultivation Office is also needed in order to commercialize the seeds.

The US seed company Pioneer made a first attempt as a Monsanto licensee in 2002, but the Federal Cultivation Office has repeatedly delayed their decision. At the end of 2004, Monsanto finally brought a MON 18-based hybrid through the two year test procedure as well. A decision was first expected in February 2005.

"And we were sure that our maize met the demands and would get the license," said Monsanto’s speaker Andreas Thierfelder. However, the decision on MON 810 was postponed, after the German Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture (BMVEL) objected, based upon genetic law provisions.

Subsequently, Monsanto contacted BMVEL and finally came to an agreement with the government office on a solution to the problem. The representatives from the ministry made assurances that no further legal concerns would be an issue for MonsantoÕs maize. In return, the seed company committed to present - no later than at the start of commercial cultivation - a monitoring-plan that closely oversees the maize crops. Everything seemed to be again set for a decision.

However, at the end of May, a few days prior to the planned meeting with the Federal Cultivation Office, another veto from Berlin arrived. The office was instructed to postpone the decision based on the advice that the EU-authorization only applies to maize as animal feed and not to seeds. In discussions with the Ministry, Monsanto - by its own account - tried another time, even though it was futile, to clear up these concerns. In mid-July, when the EU-commission finally clarified that the permission for MON810 corresponded to the application of seeds, as well, the company decided to sue.

This episode is - from the vantage point of researchers and industry representatives - a typical example of the destiny of green biotechnology [GM crops] in Germany.

Scarcely another research area in the past years has seen itself so vigorously thwarted, delayed and constantly burdened with new barriers as plant biotechnology. Industry representatives regard the red-green government as seven lost years

Dietmar Brauer, Director of the mid-sized seed company Northern German Plant Breeding, talks about a really devastating development. Wherever the government established new rules, it has significantly exceeded the EU guidelines.

From the vantage point of the seeds branch, there were some positive developments. Particularly, the gene technology initiative that was promoted by Federal Chancellor Schroeder promised some progress. The moratorium on crop testing would have been superceded with a requirement for a three year field trial for transgenic seeds. However in Berlin, under the effect of the BSE-crisis, the plans were already put aside 6 months later. Then Renate Kuenast, a Green party and vocal opponent of genetic engineering, took over the leadership of the newly created Ministry of Consumer Protection and Agriculture.

Industry representatives regard as especially serious the fact that the adjustment of the European release guidelines was first delayed for years, and was then finally accepted in German Genetic Engineering law with a really prohibitive liability rule. " In the overall package, the legal regulations are so prohibitive that it has made entry into several areas rather impossible, " Ricardo Gent, director of the German Industry Incorporation Biotechnology (BID), says.

For example, one serious hurdle is posed by the new German Genetic Engineering Law, which established a form of joint, as well as independent liability, for any varietly of genetically engineered seeds, regardless of negligence. In addition, out-crossings of permitted outdoor tests are classified as an unapproved use of genetically modified seeds Ð which, from the vantage point of the German Industry Incorporation Biotechnology, implicates incalculable liability risks for research.

"As a consequence of such liability risks, the number of outdoor field tests has declined by about two thirds since1999. Despite good basic research, Germany is losing their international status in product development in the area of green biotechnology," DIB warns. "Scientific outdoor field trials tests would be increasingly restricted to crops such as potatoes, where no out-crossing is possible."

However, research also perceives itself as being continually slowed down by the blockade politics of the Ministry of Consumer Protection and Agriculture. A few months ago, the fact that minister Kuenast stopped a project on research safety with the biological federal agency - under the control of to the BMVEL - caused [] international concern.

A research group, led by professor Joachim Schiemann of Braunschweig, aimed to optimize the safety of genetically engineered plants with the project and successfully applied for federal grant money from the Federal Research Ministry. However, they had to withdraw their application under pressure from BMVEL.

Also on other occasions, researchers were apparently stopped. In autumn 2003 for example, the BMVEL stopped a trial with apple trees, whose release had already been approved by the German Commission for Biological Safety. NPZ-director Brauer refers to the publicly supported project Nanus 2000, where rape seed was to have been enriched with a gene for the constitutional fatty acid refiratol. When it came to the point where open field trials would have been required, the BMVEL prohibited them.

© Verlagsgruppe Handelsblatt GmbH - Economy.One 2005

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