Fighting in the Field: Monsanto's Uphill Battle in Germany

By Uwe Buse

Business is booming worldwide for US biotech giant Monsanto but in Germany the company has encountered fierce resistance. A colorful alliance of beekeepers, anti-capitalism protestors and conservative politicians are in the process of chasing the global market leader out of the country.

When Karl Heinz Bablok wants to relax and get away from his job at the BMW plant, he hops on his bike and cycles out to Kaisheim, a quiet town in Germany's southwestern Swabia region. It doesn't take Bablok long to reach his destination, sitting in the middle of a meadow: an apiary, made of rough-cut boards, which he made himself.

Bablok, an amateur beekeeper and skilled handyman, spends much of his free time here, repairing the apiary in the winter and making honey in the summer. The apiary is where Bablok's recharges his batteries, the place he goes to store up the energy he needs for everyday life and for his job at the BMW plant's training workshops. The apiary was supposed to be a very private place -- far away from work and, most of all, far away from the public.

But the apiary and the honey he produces there are no longer private. His honey is now at the center of a dispute being staged in German courts, and observed and influenced by both politicians and the media. And it has drawn Bablok, a man who just wanted his peace and quiet, into one of Germany's major ideological debates -- a battle that has been waged for years in the courts, in the political arena and in the fields, with words, scientific studies and sometimes fists.

On one side of the battle are the genetic engineering companies, and in particular US corporation Monsanto, the world's largest producer of seeds, which practically holds a monopoly on genetically modified (GM) plants. Monsanto produces the only modified plant approved for use in commercial farming in Germany, a corn variety that is used for animal feed. The primary benefit of the plant, called MON 810, is that it produces a toxin that allows it to fight off one of its enemies, the voracious larvae of a moth.

On the other side stand Monsanto's many adversaries, a heterogeneous alliance that brings together organic farmers, anti-capitalism activists, churches and politicians with the conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

The dispute between the two camps revolves around the opportunities and risks involved in green genetic engineering. It's about companies that are playing God and about fundamental questions like: What should man be permitted to do? What can science do? And should we be allowed to do things just because we can? The dispute is also about freedom and its limitations, the freedom to carry out research, and the freedom of consumers, farmers, beekeepers and a corporation. Where does one side's freedom end and the other's begin, and who draws the boundaries?

Honey for the Waste Incinerator

Bablok became part of the controversy because some of his bee colonies were collecting pollen from fields where the Bavarian State Research Center for Agriculture was growing GM corn for research purposes. The bees carried the pollen back to their hives and Bablok, who knew that the GM cornfields were nearby, had samples tested to ensure that his honey was clean. But the laboratory found that up to 7 percent of the pollen was from GM plants. When the case became public, a district court in the Bavarian city of Augsburg ordered Bablok to stop selling, or even giving away, his honey. As a result, he became Germany's first beekeeper who delivered his honey to a waste incineration facility. Now Bablok is suing the Bavarian State Research Center for Agriculture to recover his costs and his lost sales, which he says amount to about €10,000.

The suit is complicated and has already passed through two courts. A third court is due to hear it soon and both sides are seeking a judgment establishing a principle. The case is about more than just Bablok's costs and the purity of German honey. In fact, the future of green genetic engineering in Germany is at stake. A victory for Bablok would further discredit MON 810. In the public's perception, it would transform the plant into a hazard for human beings.

Bablok, sitting in his kitchen, is an easygoing man given to long pauses between sentences. File folders are arranged on the table in front of him containing motions filed by his attorneys from Berlin, people who are familiar with the material. A beekeepers' association is helping to pay their fees. The folders also contain the motions filed by the opposing parties' lawyers. They are being represented by the law firm of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. With its 2,500 attorneys, the firm is about as global as Monsanto.

The documents are extensive, weighty and complicated. The core issue revolves around whether Bablok's genetically modified honey is subject to the licensing regulations set down by European Union food law. The attorneys for the Bavarian State Research Center for Agriculture say no. Bablok's lawyers say yes. The question is so important because Monsanto's corn can only emerge from the case unscathed if the judges rule that Bablok's honey is not subject to the food licensing regulations.

Although the loss of sales has affected Bablok, it has not spoiled beekeeping for him. He will set up his hives again this year, just in other locations. He is also trying to forge an alliance of beekeepers in the region. His plan -- his revenge -- is to make Kaisheim and the surrounding area bee-free, so that there will be no bees to pollinate plants in the area.

Nowadays Bablok follows the case from afar. He says that the matter is now "in the hands of the thinking people," the attorneys from Berlin. As a factory worker, he says, he has long since given up trying to understand their arguments.

Monsanto's German headquarters are located in a business park in Düsseldorf. Only two postcard-sized brass plates at the entrance of a high-rise building, which are easy to overlook, identify the offices. Monsanto is known for its efforts to avoid the public. Ursula Lüttmer-Ouazane greets us in a conference room with her firm handshake. A resolute woman, she is in charge of Monsanto's operations in northern Europe, including Germany. Her career began with an agricultural apprenticeship and she never attended a university. The challenges of rising to the top in a male-dominated industry are reflected in the lines in her face.

Lüttmer-Ouazane has been in the business for 30 years. She began working for Monsanto 10 years ago, after stints with some of the major players in the industry, including BASF, Novartis and Syngenta. Lüttmer-Ouazane has never romanticized agriculture, which she regards as applied chemistry.

Monsanto's annual report lies on the table in front of Lüttmer-Ouazane. These are good times for the group, globally speaking. Last year Monsanto doubled its profits to about $2 billion (€1.6 billion). The food crisis in the spring of 2008 drove its stock up to an all-time high of $142 a share. New GM plants boosted sales in South America, leading Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant to announce ambitious goals, which included doubling profits once again by 2012. Grant sees great potential in developing countries, where Monsanto is pinning its hopes on a draught-resistant variety of corn that it plans to begin selling soon.

Europe and Germany were assigned the roles of prestige markets in the company's business plan. For the critics of genetic engineering, this is not just about hundreds of thousands of hectares planted with corn, rape, soy or cotton, but about making headway in the fields in general.

When Lüttmer-Ouazane started working for Monsanto 10 years ago, her goal was to see 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) cultivated with Monsanto's MON 810 corn by 2009. It did not seem to be such an unattainable goal, representing as it did only about 1 percent of all land planted with corn in Germany.

And yet Monsanto ended up falling well short of that goal.

While GM corn is grown on about 30 million hectares (74 million acres) in the United States, Canada and Argentina, and about an additional 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) in South Africa, Brazil and the Philippines, only about 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of GM corn were registered by German farmers with the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety. Lüttmer-Ouazane miscalculated -- in many respects.

She had hoped to find substantial supporters among Germany's politicians, but found very few. Only members of the pro-business Free Democrats or the Federal Ministry for Education and Research occasionally speak out in favor of promoting green genetic engineering. It has almost been a replay of familiar arguments from previous debates, for example about the phasing out of nuclear energy or about proposals to build the Transrapid high-speed train in Germany. Proponents argue that green genetic engineering is also a key technology, and that it plays an important role in demonstrating Germany's future viability. But these are weak arguments that just come across as vague speculation about the future.

Few Sympathetic Ears in Parliament

The vast majority of politicians remained unconvinced. They saw no reason to support a company that uses a highly controversial technology to create a product rejected by the majority of Germans.

Lobbying work, which can be successful and reliable in markets like the United States, did not produce the desired results in Germany. Many organizations in both Berlin and the states were engaged to help generate a greater acceptance for green genetic engineering: Organizations like InnoPlanta in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the German Crop Protection and Fertilizer Industries Association in Frankfurt am Main and Europabio in Brussels. Their members have attempted to find a sympathetic ear for the cause among members of parliament.

In January 2007, representatives of the major political parties gathered at the state parliament in the eastern state of Brandenburg to hear a group of US experts explain the benefits of green genetic engineering to them. The main speaker was American genetic corn farmer Don Thompson, while his wife, Jill Long Thompson, a former Under Secretary of Agriculture, was available to address possible "legislative issues." But lobbyists for green genetic engineering cannot claim any real successes. "We expressed our views on the issue when the Genetic Engineering Law was written," says Lüttmer-Ouazane, "but we cannot be satisfied with the outcome."

(Eds:On Jan. 25, 2008 the German parliament, the Bundestag, voted in favor of an amendment to the Genetic Engineering Law. In the future, fields of GM and conventional corn would have to be separated by a distance of at least 150 meters. In the case of organic corn that minimum distance doubles to 300 meters. The law's liability provisions continued to stipulate that farmers who plant GM crops are liable for loss of income suffered by neighboring conventional farmers as a result of the GM presence.)

According to Lüttmer-Ouazane, the liability rules impose a one-sided burden on farmers willing to give green genetic engineering a chance. These farmers are faced with considerable bureaucratic red tape, says Lüttmer-Ouazane, and the required spacing between GM corn and conventional or organic corn is too large. Lüttmer-Ouazane is no friend of Berlin's political machinery and its results.

But the politicians are not her only problem. She also encounters adversaries in places that do not look like centers of political resistance.

A few weeks ago, Michael Grolm was standing on a tower high above Tonndorf in the eastern state of Thuringia, and high above the castle where he lives. Reaching Grolm requires walking up wooden steps that are crooked and worn from the previous generations that have climbed up to the top of this tower.

Made of rough-cut stones, the tower is so old that is was depicted in paintings dating back to the Renaissance. The castle was first mentioned in writings from the 13th century and it is a protected landmark today. And, with its moat and its walls, it is also a bastion against change.

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