German biotechnology law jumps last hurdle

Representing the German federal states (“Länder”), the Bundesrat has adopted a new set of rules for the voluntary labelling of "GMO free" animal products and for the cultivation of genetically modified maize.

Today's decision was the last step in the legislative procedure which, presumably in spring, results in the enactment of the amended law. It allows animal-derived foods such as meat, milk and eggs to be labelled as "without gene technology", provided that feed used in the productiofeen of these foodstuffs contained no genetically modified plants for a given period of time. Nonetheless, animals may have been fed indeed with additives such vitamins or enzymes that were produced with genetically modified organisms.

The state of Hesse failed in its attempt to prevent the “GMO-free” labelling: its call for a conciliation procedure did not find the necessary support among the Länder. Together with a few other states, Hesse criticised such labelling as deceptive. The label "without gene technology" would lead consumers to assume that a product had no contact with biotechnology in any stage of its production, which is not the case. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia complained that the amendment would constrain biotechnological research but also was unable to find enough support for a conciliation procedure.

Strict regulations for the cultivation of genetically modified maize form part of the law package. To avoid cross-pollination, a farmer growing GM crops must keep a minimum distance of 150 metres between his transgenic maize and conventional maize fields. Between GM maize and organic maize fields, this distance is increased to 300 metres. Farmers wishing to cultivate genetically engineered maize must advise their neighbours in writing three months before the intended sowing.

While neighbours may agree to separation distances below recommended values, any such agreement must be reported to the competent federal authority and will be recorded in the nationwide site register.

According to the public register, around 280 German farmers currently plan to seed more than 4,300 hectares of genetically modified maize in 2008. However, the German Farmers Association (DBV) withheld recommendation of GM crops. Such hesitancy is due to farmers’ retention of liability, despite the latest amendment and irrespective of negligence or fault.