Germany has banned the cultivation of GM corn, claiming that MON 810 is dangerous for the environment. But that argument might not stand up in court and Berlin could face fines totalling millions of euros if American multinational Monsanto decides to challenge the prohibition on its seed.
The sowing season may be just around the corner, but this year German farmers will not be planting gentically modified crops: German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner announced Tuesday she was banning the cultivation of GM corn in Germany.
Greenpeace activists take a sample from a Monsanto test site near Borken in North Rhine-Westphalia: The GM crop MON 810 has been banned in Germany.
Under the new regulations, the cultivation of MON 810, a GM corn produced by the American biotech giant Monsanto, will be prohibited in Germany, as will the sale of its seed. Aigner told reporters Tuesday she had legitimate reasons to believe that MON 810 posed "a danger to the environment," a position which she said the Environment Ministry also supported. In taking the step, Aigner is taking advantage of a clause in EU law which allows individual countries to impose such bans.
"Contrary to assertions stating otherwise, my decision is not politically motivated," Aigner said, referring to reports that she had come under pressure to impose a ban from within her party, the conservative Bavaria-based Christian Social Union. She stressed that the ban should be understood as an "individual case" and not as a statement of principle regarding future policy relating to genetic engineering.
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) both welcomed the ban. Greenpeace's genetic engineering expert, Stephanie Töwe, said the decision was long overdue, explaining that numerous scientific studies demonstrated that GM corn was a danger to the environment.
However the ban could prove costly for the German government. Experts in Aigner's ministry recently told SPIEGEL that it will be hard to prove conclusively that MON 810 damages the environment, which could enable Monsanto to win a court case opposing the ban and potentially expose the government to 6-7 million ($7.9-9.2 million) in damages.
Monsanto said Tuesday that it would look into the question of whether it would take legal proceedings as quickly as possible. Andreas Thierfelder, spokesman for Monsanto Germany, said the matter was very urgent as the planting season was just about to start.
Aigner has recently come under pressure from Bavaria to ban GM corn. Bavaria's Environment Minister Markus Söder wants to turn Germany into a "GM food-free zone." Environmental groups have long called for a ban on GM crops in Germany, arguing that they pose a danger to plants and animals.
However, supporters of genetic engineering argue that a ban could prompt research companies and institutes to pull up stakes and leave Germany. Wolfgang Herrmann, president of Munich's Technical University, has said that a prohibition risks precipitating "an exodus of researchers."
The issue has exposed a split between Bavaria's CSU and its larger sister party, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Katherina Reiche, deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU's parliamentary group, has complained of the "CSU's irresponsible, cheap propaganda," claiming that it could harm German industry. She argued that anti-GM sentiment was one reason a subsidiary of the German chemical giant Bayer decided to moved its facilities for genetic engineering from Potsdam, near Berlin, to Belgium.
MON 810 was approved for cultivation in Europe by the European Union in 1998 and is currently the only GM crop which can be grown in Germany. The plant produces a toxin to fight off a certain pest, the voracious larvae of the corn borer moth. The crop was due to be planted this year on a total area of around 3,600 hectares (8,896 acres) in Germany. The cultivation of MON 810 is already banned in five other EU member states, namely Austria, Hungary, Greece, France and Luxembourg.
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