Practically all stakeholders in Germany consider the freedom of choice for consumers and farmers an important goal in the debate on agri-biotechnology. However, the points of view on how far this freedom should reach and how it can be realised differ widely. Critics of GMO usage demand that a completely GM-free production chain must be possible, thus calling for strict regulations on co-existence and liability. Other stakeholders find an absolute separation of GM and conventional products neither reasonable nor feasible, since low levels of admixing can hardly be prevented in agricultural production. They demand equal rights for the cultivation of GM plants and for conventional and organic agriculture. According to them, the labelling threshold of 0.9 percent should be accepted as the guideline for regulations on co-existence and liability.
The current German Federal Government, which took office in autumn 2005, states in its coalition agreement the intention to modify the regulations on genetic engineering in a way that promotes research and the application of technology in Germany. The goal of the German legislation on genetic engineering has been defined as the protection of the consumers' and farmers' freedom of choice and the co-existence of the different agricultural systems. However, the drafting of the actual modifications to the existing Gene Technology Act is still being hotly debated within the government both between and within political parties. Some members of the government consider biotechnology an opportunity for innovation and fear that without it, Germany could lag behind in international competitiveness. Others emphasise safety concerns and the freedom of consumer choice. The Minister of Agriculture, Horst Seehofer, who is responsible for the legislation on agri-biotechnology, has announced strict regulations on the cultivation of GMOs for avoiding conflicts over liabilities. For maize he states a possible minimum separation distance of 150 metres. According to the minister, no other GM plants are currently suitable for the cultivation in Germany.
The governmental parties CDU/CSU and SPD both argue for more research in biotechnology and genetic engineering. Both fractions stress the importance of freedom of choice for farmers and consumers. Politicians of the SPD support stricter regulations on co-existence and liability. Along with some members of the CSU, the SPD point out that there is a need for further research on the impact of the cultivation of GMOs. The politician Markus Söder (CSU) even calls for a moratorium on the cultivation of GMOs until open questions have been answered. Dominant opinion in the CDU is that farmers must be able to grow approved and thus safety-assessed GM plants. They fear that a strict legislation on genetic engineering could weaken Germany’s research, agriculture, and food industries. This argumentation is similar to that of the liberal party FDP, which fights for less restrictions on the cultivation of GMOs. The Greens and the new socialist party PDS/Die Linke are opposed to GMOs in general. Greens and PDS/Linke call for restrictive co-existence regulations.
The German Association of Biotechnology Industries (DIB) and the German National Association of Plant Breeders (BDP) demand that co-existence measures be practical. They also ask that co-existence and liability regulations not discourage the use of approved GM plants. Or in other words, they must not be so cost- and labour-intensive that they preclude farmers even from considering the cultivation of genetically modified plants. Regulations on growing and separation distances should be derived from scientific data and practical experiences. The biotechnology industry considers claims to guarantee a complete absence of GMOs from organic or conventional products to be impossible to realise. The industry calls for a consequent application of the labelling threshold of 0.9 percent. Practical maximum thresholds for adventitious GMO presence in seeds are considered essential for co-existence.
The German Farmers’ Association (DBV), representing more than 90 percent of all German farmers, demands clear and fixed coexistence rules and protection from liability for farmers if measures for co-existence are upheld. At the moment, with detailed co-existence regulations and liability protection still absent, the DBV recommends to its members to be wary of planting GM crops.
The organisations of organic farmers (BÖLW, AbL) want to keep their products GM-free. Therefore they argue for strict rules on co-existence and liability, claiming compensation even for accidental GM admixing below 0.9 percent. The organisations of organic farmers support the establishing of GM-free regions.
In June 2006, some farmers who support the cultivation of genetically modified plants founded the "Arbeitsgemeinschaft Innovativer Landwirte" ("Working Group of Innovative Farmers"). They demand freedom of choice, which includes the freedom to cultivate genetically modified plants, and they call for practical regulations on co-existence.
Associations of the food industry insist that they take consumers' wariness of genetically modified foods seriously. At the same time, the Federation of German Food and Drink Industries (BVE) points out, for example, that the world-wide presence of agri-biotechnology has become a reality. They consider a permanent denial of it to be neither possible nor responsible for the German food and drink industries due to the development on the international market for raw materials and processing aids in the food and feed sectors. Currently, however, food producers try to avoid GM ingredients which would make their products require labelling. Therefore, consumers have difficulty finding labelled foods in supermarkets.
The German feed industry, in contrast, markets a considerable quantity of animal feeds containing GMOs and labelled as such. Conventional soy-based feeds which are not genetically modified are offered for a premium. A premium is charged due reflect the additional work for producers and suppliers involved with transporting and processing conventional and GM products separately and documenting the process.
The environmental organisation Greenpeace puts pressure on German dairy companies for not guaranteeing that they only process milk from farms that reject GM maize and GM soy. The companies respond by claiming the markets make it difficult to obtain guaranteed GM-free feed.
The results of a recent public opinion poll (Eurobarometer 64.3) show that a majority of German consumers (within a subset of the population considered "decided" on the issue) would buy GM foods if they were healthier, contained less pesticide residues or if they were produced more environmentally friendly in general. On the other hand nearly 40 percent of German consumers reject all reasons for buying GM foods. Asked about their current position on the application of genetic engineering in agriculture, a majority of Germans remain sceptical. Only 30 percent consider GM food useful and morally acceptable, and believe that the technology should be supported. Consumer associations emphasise the consumers’ freedom of choice. Therefore, they postulate strict co-existence rules.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and BUND are campaigning against the usage of GMOs in agriculture and food production. In their view, co-existence in agriculture will be hard to realise. The NGOs demand that GM-free agriculture be permanently ensured. Thus they find it unacceptable if organic and conventional farmers receive compensation only if the GM share of their harvest exceeds the labelling threshold of 0.9 percent. They believe thresholds for seed should be lowered to the detection limit. In addition, NGOs call for bans on certain GM plants, arguing that safety assessments have been insufficient.
Greenpeace is also campaigning against dairy companies that do not reject milk from cows fed with genetically modified feeds.
Before presenting a draft for an amendment of the Genetic Engineering Act and for a detailed co-existence regulation, the German minister for agriculture Horst Seehofer invited stakeholder groups, associations, and companies to discuss those topics. The arguments communicated at the consultations will be considered when drafting the amendment to the Gene Technology Act.
In 2009, radical opponents of genetic engineering repeatedly destroyed plots of GM plants. Field trials with maize (http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/681.docu.html) and apples (http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/692.docu.html) for the purpose of biosafety research were among the affected fields. GM maize cultivations for variety approval processes were also destroyed. In addition, co-existence field trials by the Ministry of Agriculture were affected. Several associations sharply criticised the destructions. Since 2005, an initiative called "Gendreck-Weg" ("gene-filth begone!") implores for help with such destructions on its website. The group’s organiser has now been legally prohibited from going near fields of GMOs.