The controversial law allows the growing of genetically-modified crops in Germany while at the same time imposing strict penalties for possible violations of food-safety regulations.
Demonstrations against GM crops bring out thousands of Germans.
The law, approved by the so-called Bundesrat, which is made up of representatives of the 16 federal states, also provides for the labelling of foodstuffs produced on the basis of genetically-modified organisms. It comes in the wake of a European Union decision to throw out a ban on the sale of so-called GMO foods on the continent. But the arrival of the shiny new world of gene-food is experiencing a rather rocky start.
The divisions cut right across villages and local politicians even fear that barns may soon be burning and crops be devastated in what could become a modern-day peasants‘ revolt. The emerging rift in rural Germany pitches gene-food advocates against conventional and organic farmers who fear contamination of their crops that could render them worthless.
Under the new law, however, conventional farmers will now be entitled to file for hefty damages in such a case. In addition farmers opting for GMO crops will be forced to register with a national database. They face fines of up to €50,000 ($59,000) or even prison terms of up to five years in cases of violations of farming regulations.
In view of such stiff penalties, Gerd Sonnleitner, the president of the German farmers association, advises farmers against growing gene-manipulated crops.
„We cannot advise our members to grow such crops, because of the stringent liability regulations included in the law by agriculture minister Renate Künast," he said. "Full private liability means that no insurance company will insure anyone growing gene crops.“
Law intended to deter GM crop production
Künast, a member of the government's junior coalition partner, the Greens, has made it abundantly clear that the new law is intended to deter farmers from opting for gene crops and to provide maximum food safety for consumers.
Regulations also include the clear labelling of all foodstuffs produced on the basis of gene-manipulated organisms, including food served in restaurants and canteens. But food safety activists such as Ulrike Brendel from Greenpeace Germany, still criticize Künast for allowing gene crops and foods at all.
"Nobody can predict what effects such a crude method will have on human health or the environment," she said. "Since genetically-modified crops are grown in North America we have seen the impact on the environment and the farmland such as the development of superweeds or insecticide resistance. And that’s just the beginning. One has to note that all the research companies are doing is looking into yields and things like that.“
Will consumers buy it?
So far gene-spliced crops, primarily maize, are grown on only 29 farms in Germany, in a first phase of open-air testing. Advocates of the technology such as Harald von Witzke from Berlin’s Humboldt University are convinced that in the long-run consumers will come to appreciate the benefits of gene foods.
"The first generation of biotechnology products has primarily benefited the producers because it has reduced costs," he said. "Consumers haven’t benefited much yet. Biotechnology food of the second, third and fourth generation will have obvious advantages for instance the absence of proteins that cause allergies and things like that. So the advantages will be visible to consumers and consumers will accept that.“
But so far, an overwhelming majority of Germans are still strongly opposed to eating gene food. And experts believe the new law will do little to change this situation for a long time to come.