German approval of GM potato Amflora just weeks after banning a GM maize crop sparks accusations the ban was politically motivated

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

Germany’s agriculture minister Ilse Aigner has approved cultivation of BASF’s genetically-modified potato Amflora just two weeks after banning a strain of genetically modified maize.

While scientists and other GM proponents are pleased that Amflora has received the green light, they also see the approval as evidence that Aigner’s highly controversial ban of Monsanto’s GM maize MON810 on 14 April was politically - not scientifically - motivated.

Mette Johansson, spokeswoman for BASF Plant Science Company in Ludwigshafen, told Chemistry World that in order to gain approval the company reduced its original cultivation plans for Amflora, a potato genetically modified to produce pure amylopectin starch for technical applications in the paper, textile and adhesives industries.

BASF agreed to reduce the trial area to 20 hectares surrounded by a fence, down from original plans for 155 hectares, and limited to a single site in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania instead of several locations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had remained in the background after Aigner’s MON810 ban triggered protest from German scientists, late last week called for a calmer GM crop debate and suggested her fellow centre-right political party members should be open to agricultural biotechnology. She also noted that companies have invested heavily in development of GM crops, a fact which ’cannot simply be ignored because currently sentiment is hostile,’ Merkel was quoted as saying.

Andreas Thierfelder, director of public and government affairs at Monsanto’s German subsidiary, says: ’While we are obviously disappointed with the MON810 ban, we are pleased for BASF and farmers that test cultivation of Amflora potatoes was approved.’

Monsanto collaborates with BASF on crop research and in March announced regulatory submissions in the US and Canada for the ’world’s first biotech drought-tolerant corn product,’ co-developed with BASF.

Monsanto was quick to take legal action against the MON810 decision, with Thierfelder commenting that ’Minister of Agriculture Aigner’s arbitrary ban is not supported by any convincing scientific evidence which could validate this ban.’

Research into Amflora began in the late 1980s, with the first attempt to gain EU regulatory approval in 1996. Frustrated by the delays, BASF in July 2008 filed an action with the European Court of First Instance in Luxembourg claiming the approval process had been ’unjustifiably delayed by the EU Commission on several occasions.’

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has given positive safety assessments for Amflora several times, Johansson says. The prime goal of this year’s Amflora cultivation is to produce seeds, she says. Similar field seed-producing trials were conducted in 2007 and 2008 in the same area in Germany and in Sweden and the Czech Republic