German states draft bill for nationwide GMO ban

GM corn should be banned throughout Germany, according to a bill in the Bundesrat. [Harvest Plus/Flickr]

Five state governments in Germany are putting pressure on Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, introducing a bill for a nationwide ban on GMOs instead of his “patchwork” proposal. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Germany’s debate over banning genetically modified (GM) plants has come to a head: Green/Social Democratic coalitions in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein presented a bill on Tuesday (30 June) proposing a nationwide ban on GM plants effective “in the entire sovereign territory”.

Agriculture Minister Schmidt is in a tight squeeze. Though he hopes to reject the cultivation of GM crops, Schmidt has left it up to German states to decide on a ban. “Now I expect the participants not to further set themselves in stone ideologically,” he said.

Freedom from GM food only through national regulation

But state ministers have a different view. Green politicians are concerned that the ban will create a patchwork system, resulting in GM-free states beside states allowing GM crops.

“Only with a nationwide regulation, will we be able to ensure freedom from GMOs in the food supply chain,” explained Schleswig-Holstein’s Environment Minister Robert Habeck.

“The German government must finally take the population’s concerns seriously, act quickly and finally provide clarification,” said North Rhine-Westfalia’s Environment Minister Johannes Remmel.

“With this bill, we intend to maintain our GM-free agriculture in Germany,” explained State Agriculture Minister Ulrike Höfken from Rhineland-Palatinate.

“Whether it be seeds or honey, all of conventional and ecological agriculture, the grocery chain and our environment must be protected from GM contamination,” she warned. But to do this, Höfke pointed out, a national ban is needed.

Backing from law experts and conservation agency

The agriculture ministers are relying heavily on a legal assessment which was published at the end of June. The report concludes that a nationwide, uniform ban on GM plants would be more stable.

“Compared to a state competence, national competence has a fundamental advantage. It facilitates legally watertight regulation in and of itself but also through consistency with legal coexistence regulations and with the approval procedure at the national level,” the lawyers write. The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation also spoke strongly in favour of the national ban.

But two other studies come to a different conclusion, which were carried out on behalf of the German government. “For the proportionality and legal security of a comprehensive cultivation ban,” one of the two studies indicates, “it is irrelevant by operational law whether it is issued by the federal or state governments”.

Majority in the Bundesrat as good as certain

Meanwhile, the bill drafted by agriculture ministers from the Green Party is intended to be introduced in the Bundesrat, Germany’s upper house, on 10 July. At that point, the committees will look over the text before it is put to a vote.

Though the five proposers only have 26 of the 69 Bundesrat votes, the chamber of states could join with red-green governments of Hamburg and Bremen (each with 3 votes) as well as the red-red-green government in Thuringia (4 votes) to impose the issue on the Bundestag.

>>Read: German government quarrels over GMO cultivation ban

Bavaria’s Environment Minister,  Ulrike Scharf (CSU) also said she favours a national regulation. “Pursuant to the Bundesrat decision from April 2014, we are speaking in support of a national standardised ban, as a matter of priority,” she told Reuters.

“The flight of pollen does not stop at state borders,” Scharf said. But if the national government does not enact a ban, a ban must be possible in the states.

Disunity in the federal government

Schmidt’s current proposal for a GM ban bill provides for state governments or responsible authorities to issue cultivation bans and restrictions rather than the national government. The reasoning behind this being that states are able to act “considerably closer to citizens and the subject at hand” with regard to concrete local cultivation and environmental conditions.

A cultivation ban for all of Germany would be much more likely to violate the principle of proportionality than a regional ban among the states. An opt-out is suited to specific local conditions, would maintain proportionality, and be able to hold up in court.

But Schmidt not only faces opposition from the states and from environmentalists. Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks is also calling for a national cultivation ban. After the EU paved the way for national cultivation bans, “it would be completely absurd if we did not implement it in all of Germany,” she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently.

Schmidt emphasised that his proposed compromise offers the most legal security against appeals of the bans, which would have to be newly agreed on after every application for cultivation. In his opinion, the Agriculture Minister said, it is downright negligent “to rely on a potentially less watertight, general provision at the national level”.

In addition, Schmidt warned that even without a law from the national level on a GMO ban, the states must spring into action. “They must take action individually and each initiate their own law,” he said.

US companies like Monsanto, Dow Chemical or Dupont make billions in revenues on GM seed and therefore have a particular interest in cultivation in Europe. In Germany, BASF and Bayer Cropscience are among the leading GMO suppliers.

The European Commission proposed allowing national cultivation bans for GMOs in July 2010, in a bid to break a deadlock in EU GM crop approvals which has seen few varieties approved for cultivation in more than 12 years.

In the EU, only one GM crop is approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, MON 810.

Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.

The proposal, which was backed by the EU’s 28 environment ministers in June 2014, gives back “full responsibility” to member states over the cultivation of GMOs on their territory.

For the first time, it formally allows EU countries to opt-out from the Europe-wide approval system.

>> Read our LinksDossier: GMO cultivation in Europe: A decade of legal battles

Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture (German language): Anbauverbot von Gentechnikpflanzen in Deutschland

Information Service on Genetic Engineering (German language): Behörde: Bundesweites Verbot beste Lösung (18 June 2015)

Legal assessment (German language): Spielräume für ein rechtssicheres Verbot des Anbaus von gentechnisch veränderten Organismen

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