Round table discussion on agricultural biotechnology

May 20, 2009

No concrete results, but "the prelude to a new dialogue"

The round table discussions on agricultural biotechnology are to be continued. Germany’s Research Minister, Annette Schavan, and Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner invited thirty representatives from science, industry, politics and associations to discuss the status of agricultural biotechnology in Germany. The churches were also represented. Today’s discussions in Berlin did not produce any concrete results, but further round tables are to be arranged to discuss individual issues.

"It was a very intensive, open and fair discussion. It was a successful start to a new dialogue about an important technology of the future," said Schavan. Both ministers stressed the need to bring the emotional public debate about the opportunities and risks of agricultural biotechnology onto a more objective level.

Aigner, as the "minister responsible", announced that she would be starting a discussion process, to which she intended to invite all the stakeholders within Germany. One of the issues to be clarified is how biosafety research and the release of genetically modified plants is to be organised in future. Other topics mentioned by the Minister of Agriculture were the situation of plant breeding and its aims, approval and authorisation procedures, genetic engineering and animal feed, and the possibility of creating GM-free farming regions. A similar debate on agricultural biotechnology (Diskurs Grüne Gentechnik) was organised in 2002 by the Minister for Consumer Protection at the time, Renate Künast (Green Party). It did not produce any concrete results or lead to any harmonisation of the different positions.

Round table: Taking pressure off the biotechnology conflict within the German government

The fact that people are being invited to a new round table in 2009 is partly a sign of the differing views on agricultural biotechnology within the German government. Aigner’s ban on growing genetically modified MON810 maize in Germany led to a public clash.

While Aigner saw "justifiable grounds for the assumption" that MON810 maize could pose a risk to humans and the environment, Schavan wrote in a guest article in Financial Times Deutschland that "so far there is no scientific evidence for damage to health or the environment through agricultural biotechnology". Schavan emphasised several times that Germany cannot afford to relinquish plant genetic engineering. Modern crop research at international level had to be able to make use of genetic methods as well. For the world to feed a growing population under more difficult conditions it would have to use all available methods – including agricultural biotechnology.

By contrast, like the CSU party, Aigner stressed the potential risks of genetically modified plants. Plant biotechnology should take place in closed facilities and not in the field. Before the round table, Aigner called on people to make greater use of the "possibilities of cultivation under glass". The continuation of the round table discussions means that the political conflict between Schavan and Aigner has been defused for the time being. Nothing much is likely to change before the Bundestag elections in the autumn.

The participants too were fairly cautious in their assessment of the round table. It was "a first step towards making the debate more objective", said Ferdinand Schmitz, head of the German plant-breeders’ association (BDP), who urged haste. "The positions have become entrenched. The debate, which has dragged on for more than ten years, is jeopardising our advantage as a location and is driving away innovation. We risk falling further behind if we cannot manage to discuss the issue on the basis of scientific results."

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, Chairman of Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft, Germany’s organic food industry association (BÖLW), on the other hand, criticised the round table as being an "extremely one-sided event". Instead of a discussion about the present-day reality of genetic engineering in agriculture, GM advocates had been given a wide platform to hold forth about its future blessings. On a positive note, however, the BÖLW chairman noted that the other discussions planned were due to look at the future direction of agricultural research. "If we end up with a balanced weighting of the different systems and a move away from the view that ‘innovation’ can only mean biotechnology, the organic farming community will be happy to take part in the debate," said Löwenstein.

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