Consumers Concerned by New Gene Technology Law | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.01.2008
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Consumers Concerned by New Gene Technology Law

The Bundestag is set Friday, Jan. 25, to pass a gene technology law, while last week saw the introduction of a new non-GM label. Consumers are under the impression that GM food has become an unavoidable fact of life.

GM soybeans (left) compared to conventional ones

Consumers have a choice between GM and conventional products

Just how many of the products on Germany supermarket shelves are genetically modified? Both skeptics and supporters of gene technology like to make out that GM crops are everywhere. To the former, this would be an argument for introducing stricter regulations, for the latter, proof that gene technology is safe, increases production and lowers the cost of food.

In fact, even though a not inconsiderable amount of agricultural land is earmarked for GM crops, the critics' prediction that they would take over the world is greatly exaggerated. Just 6 percent -- 102 million hectares -- of agricultural land around the world produces GM crops.

Germany had just 2,700 hectares given over to GM crops in 2007, which amounts to less than 0.1 percent of its entire agricultural land.

European reservations

A farmer in Zimbabwe in a cornfiled

Some argue that gene technology promises higher yields

It's a different story in the US, which devotes 55 million hectares of farmland to GM crops. Canada, Argentina, Brazil, China and India are also enthusiastic advocates of genetic modification.

Europe is less keen. This stems partly from legal restrictions but also has to do with agricultural structures.

"Use of genetically modified seed is only worth it in regions where the fields are very large, because it is so expensive," said Heike Moldenhauer from Friends of the Earth Germany. In these cases, the fact that GM crops are highly resistant to pests and damage reduces the chances of a failed harvest. With smaller fields, these advantages are less crucial.

The same principle applies in Germany. GM crops are grown almost exclusively in the former East Germany, where fields are larger than they are in the western part of the country. According to statistics compiled by the German Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, the highest proportion of GM crops care to be found in Brandenburg, Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania.

Germany permits the import of GM crops, but only Monsanto's modified corn seed Mon 810 may be grown in the European Union. Other GM seed is used all over the world, including corn, rapeseed, cotton and soybean.

Allying consumer fears

An anti-GM food demonstration

Consumers want to make informed choices

Nonetheless, 80 percent of the genetically modified products cultivated by the world's farmers rarely end up directly in the consumers' kitchens. The bulk of it is used for animal feed after Brussels banned use of processed animal protein in animal feed and European farmers largely switched to low-cost GM soybean.

Ultimately, consumers determined to avoid GM food should steer clear of animal products such as milk, meat and eggs. But they can rest assured that the remaining 20 percent of GM crops being grown are destined for t-shirts and jeans. For the time being, there are still plenty of alternatives to genetically modified tomatoes and potatoes in Germany's supermarkets.

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