By Stefan Theil
July 18, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Jul 27, 2009
What Lurks Beneath
in key industries of the future.
In the 1960s and 1970s, German companies and laboratories churned out futuristic technologies, from novel types of nuclear reactors to the world’s first magnetic-levitation train. In the early 1980s, Germany was one of the first countries to develop a national plan for genetics research, setting up labs in Munich, Cologne, and Heidelberg. Per capita, German scientists applied for more biotech patents than Americans did.
Yet only a few years later, German pharmaceutical companies like BASF and Bayer postponed production plans and moved much of their research abroad. Germany lost its spot at the cutting edge of biotech. One reason was the pull of a powerful new startup culture that had developed around American universities in the 1980s. But there was a more sinister reason as well: a powerful coalition of environmental activists, church leaders, politicians, and journalists mobilized fears against medical biotechnology as a dangerous meddling with nature, an attack on human dignity reminiscent of Nazi eugenics. With much of the public behind them, lawmakers tightened regulations, bureaucrats refused to grant permits, and even academic research facilities became targets of righteous protest. Today, most Germans once again accept medical biotech, but most of the industry’s leading companies are found in the U.S.
Germany, though, doesn’t seem to have learned from this experience. The same fears of out-of-control technology continue to hold back German companies and scientists. Germany is the only leading economy to have banned nuclear power despite a world-beating safety record, and in the process killed off a once thriving civilian nuclear industry. Now Germany has become one of the leaders among major countries in opposing agricultural biotech, banning even genetically engineered crops that are permitted by the EU and rolling back research at its labs and universities. Already, environmental activists are gearing up for new fights—which could come in nanotechnology, a fast-emerging industry where German companies are among the global leaders, but where opponents fear invisible particles that could contaminate food and the air. At a nuke-industry confab earlier this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany must take care not to "weaken our industrial base" by opting out of high-tech sectors. Merkel’s worry: at a time when every rich nation is searching for competitive advantage in a crisis-stricken global economy, Germans’ techno-skepticism threatens to block the country’s access to some of the most promising emerging industries.
Green technophobia is by no means just a German phenomenon. Much of Europe is on a crusade against biotech crops, seen as a dangerous contamination of the human food supply. The Swiss have gone even further than the Germans, writing the dignity of plants into their Constitution. (In theory, genetically engineered pest resistance should raise the dignity of plants, but that’s not how Swiss legislators see it.) In America, born-again politicians helped place severe restrictions on stem-cell research that were rolled back only this year by the new administration. Countries like Sweden and Italy also legislated against nuclear power. Since then, however, they have reversed course. Worried about energy dependence and global warming, they no longer believe they can afford the luxury of abandoning an emissions-free power source.
But it’s in Germany where environmental techno-angst seems to have found its most fertile ground, despite the country’s rich history of industrial leadership and technological innovation. The current crackdown on green biotech is particularly poignant. Historically, German companies have been at the forefront of agricultural technology and plant breeding, and it was German researchers who invented some of the gene-splicing technologies on which the science is based today. Yet in April, Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner overrode the protest of 1,600 of those scientists and banned the only genetically engineered plant commercially farmed in Germany, a strain of feed corn resistant to a destructive pest common in Bavaria and Brandenburg. Even more disturbing, Germany has been curtailing academic research. The number of experimental field trials has plummeted from 81 in 2007 to 35 this year. Since last year, four universities have voluntarily ordered their geneticists to shut down field studies, citing public pressure and the systematic destruction of their research by activists opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Stefan Hormuth, president of Giessen University, explained that he could no longer resist "massive opposition from politicians and the general public" and had acted in order to "maintain the university’s reputation." The German Academy of Science has warned of the threat to academic freedom. The irony: most of the abandoned field trials weren’t experiments with radical new varieties, but government-funded impact assessments to verify the safety of GMOs.
Predictably, the crackdown is leading to an exodus of talent and business. Ralph Bock, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, south of Berlin, says 80 percent of his research team leaders have left or plan to leave the country. The institute’s fields were among the 100 or so destroyed by activists over the past decade. Bock says 24-hour protection is too expensive and has therefore suspended field trials. Nearby, Bayer CropScience, which in the past developed some of the institute’s spinoff technology, this spring announced it will close its R&D facility for GMO crops and move to more tech-friendly Belgium. BASF, another German agro-tech giant, says it has suspended research into new GMO varieties designed for the European market. Since 2007, BASF has shifted new investment almost completely to the U.S.
The economic cost in lost opportunity is difficult to gauge but certainly large. According to Ernst & Young’s 2009 Biotech Survey, Germany’s biotech sector has recovered from its 1980s setbacks to become the world’s third biggest after America’s and Britain’s, measured by the number of companies. Yet its startups are still comparatively young and small. A study by the Fraunhofer Institute in Karlsruhe estimates that faster adoption of biotechnology—including a favorable political and public-opinion climate—could create more than 200,000 additional jobs in this industry. That number would almost make up for the 250,000 jobs Germany has lost over the past 12 months due to the recession. The nuclear phaseout will shut down the last plants by 2020, and will cost the state of Bavaria alone up to €60 billion in fuel and purchases of alternative power, according to the governor’s office in Munich. Amid today’s global renaissance of nuclear power, Germany’s former market leaders are struggling to regain their position, now that they can’t sell to domestic customers. In March, Munich-based Siemens announced a partnership with Moscow-based Rosatom to access Russian technology in an attempt to gain a share of the 400 plants expected to be built worldwide by 2030—a market Siemens CEO Peter Löscher expects to be worth more than €1 trillion. Once upon a time, it was Siemens that exported its nuclear technology worldwide; now it will be the minority partner of a Russian state company. Were the protests to spread against nanotech, they could threaten Germany’s share of a global industry that’s expected to grow from €104 billion in annual revenue today to €2.1 trillion in 2015.
Other countries have rebelled against technology perceived by the public as dangerous, but none as vigorously as Germany. The French hate GMO—but love their nuclear power. America stopped building nuclear reactors after the Three Mile Island reactor accident in 1979—but millions of consumers eat GMO food products every day. It is in Germany that these aversions have struck most often and most strongly, for historical, cultural, and political reasons.
A perfect case study of how these elements come together is how Germany squashed genetically engineered medicine in the 1980s—an outbreak of technophobia with few parallels in any other society. (Today’s anti-GMO crackdown follows a similar script.) Activism and media coverage painted gene-splicing discoveries as dangerous Frankenstein medicine and a moral crime against the natural order. Much more than in other countries, German mainstream environmentalism has often tended toward the philosophical, a Weltanschauung more concerned with ethical stances and behavioral norms than mere practical matters like cleaning up lakes and rivers.
At the time, protests centered on Hoechst, a pharmaceutical giant that had developed artificial insulin for diabetics, replacing a cumbersome and expensive "natural" process that derived insulin from the pancreases of millions of slaughtered pigs. That Hoechst had once been a part of IG Farben—the company that produced the gas for Auschwitz during World War II—added an additional narrative of moral outrage to the activists’ campaign: that of an unaccountable capitalist corporation bent on doing evil for profit. Former foreign minister Joschka Fischer, then environment minister of the state of Hesse, where Hoechst was located and Fischer’s Green Party first took power, blocked Hoechst’s insulin production plant. For 14 years, the company battled red tape before finally opening the plant in 1988. By then, most German diabetics were already supplied from France using Hoechst’s technology. Thanks to the crackdown in Hesse and several other states, the reputation of medical genetics took a long time to recover. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that a nascent German biotech industry took off.
Today the prime target of activists is Monsanto, a secretive U.S.-based agro giant that controls the majority of the GMO market. Like Hoechst, it has a past that can be painted in evil highlights, as the purveyor of Agent Orange to the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. The irony is that companies like Monsanto are making fat profits at Germany’s expense. Because most applications can’t be further developed in Germany, the prime beneficiaries of the German crackdown on field trials have been foreign competitors like Monsanto, which can build on the German research, says Klaus-Dieter Jany, head of the Center for Molecular Biology in Karls-ruhe. All but ignored in the public debate is the fact that Germans are already eating GMO-derived foods every day, much of it developed by Monsanto, including GMO soy-based food additives and meat produced from animals raised on GMO feed crops imported from North and South America. Similarly, despite the decision to abandon nuclear power, few German environmentalists have ever protested the fact that they are surrounded by nukes around their borders, or that their electric companies import atomic power from neighboring France.
Such inconvenient facts have little place in a debate that has turned rational issues into deeply moral ones. When it came of age in the 1980s, Germany’s green movement defined nature—or what is mythified as such, for there is no wild nature left in densely settled Germany—as "good," and viewed technological intrusions with suspicion. These modern Greens harked back to powerful back-to-nature movements that defined science and scientists as "cold," corrupted by capitalist masters, and blind to catastrophic risk. Young, idealistic Germans in search of their post–World War II identity embraced these themes as a way to prove to themselves that they were "good" again. That movement’s victory in the German culture wars produced the powerful taboos, which seem especially strong concerning any tampering with nature on an invisible level—whether it’s the climate, the atom, the cell, or (potentially) machines that operate on a nano level. "Technophobia, a fear of risks of all kinds, is just another version of our extreme desire for stability," says Thomas Petersen, a political analyst at the Allensbach Institute. Now, as environmentalism has gone mainstream, a skepticism against nature-tampering technologies like GMO has taken hold in all the major political parties, says Hans-Werner Sinn, director of the IFO Institute in Munich.
Today, in a rich and stable country, these fears can seem a little peculiar. Until a few years ago, German schoolbooks were full of apocalyptic warnings that PCs would destroy jobs, kill interpersonal communication, and turn humans into an "anonymous code"—just about the opposite of what happened. The good news is that despite the indoctrination, younger Germans tend to be a lot more relaxed about technology than their schoolbook-writing elders. German companies remain world leaders in information and alternative-energy technologies, and the hurdles they face have more to do with a lack of venture capital than technophobia. "The moment we’re talking about ‘good’ technology, like wind or solar power, people can’t get enough of it," says Petersen.
He expects this new movement—the rise of green industry—to shift the debate in Germany, as it has in other countries. Someday, Germans could take their cue from environmentalists like Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, who has changed his mind about nukes and GMOs, arguing that by cutting emissions and creating better biofuels, both help fight global warming. Already, a small but rising majority of Germans say the decision to shut down nuclear power was wrong. That is, perhaps, a sign that Germans may be letting go of their old technological anxieties at last.