German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner will announce in the coming weeks whether her office will impose a ban on the commercial use of a type of genetically modified corn produced and marketed by the American biotech giant Monsanto.
But the idea has sparked a war of words between normally allied German conservatives. Aigner is a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Since Bavaria is an agricultural region, a CDU official has condemned the CSU's push for the ban as populism -- or, more precisely, as "irresponsible, cheap propaganda."
Monsanto, the world's largest producer of seeds, manufactures the only GM plant still approved for use in commercial farming in Germany, a corn used for animal feed. The primary benefit of the plant, called MON 810, is that it produces a toxin to fight off one of its worst enemies , the voracious larvae of the corn borer moth. The seed was introduced in the EU in 1998.
Aigner is under pressure from Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, to push through the ban so he can use the issue to gain votes for his party in the upcoming EU and German elections. The electoral boost would come from the many voters in Germany that have fiercely resisted GM plants and Monsanto. These include organic farmers, beekeepers, church groups and anti-capitalism protesters.
But Aigner is also feeling pressure not to impose the ban -- which would contradict EU law -- from within her own ministry, from other political parties and ministers, and from members of the scientific community.
Experts in Aigner's ministry warn that it will be hard to prove that MON 810 damages the environment, which could let Monsanto win a court case opposing the ban and expose the government to €6-7 million ($7.9-9.2 million) in damages.
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 AG decided to moved its facilities for genetic engineering from Potsdam, near Berlin, to Belgium.
Aigner told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that the GE "has so far not yielded tangible benefits for the people." She has an ally in German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabrial, of the rival Social Democrats. "I don't see why we should pursue the interests of a single American corporation," Gabriel has said.
He was one of the majority of EU environment ministers who successfully blocked a move by the European Commission in early March to force Austria and Hungary to lift their bans on genetically modified corn.
Some members of the scientific community, though, have complained about the repercussions of a possible ban. Wolfgang Herrmann, president of Munich's Technical University, has said that the CSU's actions risk precipitating "an exodus of researchers."
Nevertheless, the Nürtingen-Geislingen University of Economics and Environment discontinued field trials of GM corn after its fields were destroyed. Other organizations, such as the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, based in Potsdam, and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics in Gatersleben, are not risking field trials right now. In 2008 the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety listed 39 such field trials. This year, only one has been listed so far.