Germany's ban of a GM maize strain raises industry fears the country may reverse its GM-tolerant stance

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

Germany’s decision to ban cultivation of a strain of genetically modified maize has triggered sharp criticism from German scientists and the European chemicals industry, who have denounced it as a setback to scientific GM research and to its commercial exploitation across Europe.

On 14 April, Germany’s Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner announced the immediate ban of Monsanto’s GM maize MON810 - a pest-resistant corn crop that was approved by the EU in 2004 - saying she believes there are ’legitimate grounds to accept that genetically modified corn from the MON810 strain constitutes a danger to the environment.’ 

However, Aigner failed to justify the ban on the basis of solid science, says Nathalie Moll, director of green biotechnology of Brussels-based EuropaBio, the European association for bioindustries. She noted that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Europe’s top licensing authority, has expressed no reservations about cultivation of genetically modified maize. Monsanto has already confirmed that it is seeking a court injunction and suing the German government for banning the maize, naming the Agriculture Ministry as the defendant in both cases.

’We can imagine that her decision was a political action related to upcoming European parliamentary or national German elections,’ Moll says. Despite being given the green light by the EU, the crop has already been banned in France, Austria, Hungary, Greece and Luxembourg.

Moll adds that the European bioindustry is particularly concerned that the ban is a complete reversal of earlier rulings in Germany, as GM maize cultivation had been allowed since 2005 with planted areas increasing each year.

And although Aigner stressed in her announcement that the  MON810 ban is an isolated decision, industry isn’t convinced, says Ricardo Gent, executive director of the German Association of Biotechnology Industries (DIB), a division of the German chemical industry association (VIB). ’We are concerned that other GM crops will be banned too, including crops that are currently in the EU approval process,’ he says.

Friendly fire

Aigner’s decision was criticised by colleagues in government, particularly research minister Annette Schavan, who voiced support for GM research. Schavan will be a key figure in future developments, Gent says, adding: ’A lot will depend on whether Schavan will be able to stand her ground against Aigner and get support from Chancellor Angela Merkel or not.’

He sees the ban having two prime negative consequences. The first is that companies will ’invest in biotech crop research and development outside of Germany and partially outside of Europe, and Europe then will have to import the resulting products’. The other negative impact is in the campaign to win public support for GM. ’Aigner’s decision has the serious knock-on consequence of eroding public confidence in the scientific evaluations of EFSA as well as in the science-based approval process itself,’ he says.

Germany’s 10 leading scientific organisations, including the Max Planck and Fraunhofer societies, the Helmholtz and Leibniz associations and the German Research Foundation, have also joined the fray, issuing a joint statement describing ’green genetic engineering’ as an important technology for the future, and calling for roundtable discussions between scientists and politicians on how to best proceed in Germany with GM crop research.