Germany intends to abstain in a European Union vote on the cultivation of a new type of genetically modified maize, a government spokesman said on Wednesday (5 January).
Some German opposition politicians said an abstention could lead to the European Commission giving a green light for the maize to be farmed, but diplomats in Brussels said Germany's move might not be enough to ensure EU approval.
The vote covers an insect-resistant maize, known as Pioneer 1507, developed jointly by DuPont and Dow Chemical. If approved, it would end Monsanto's current monopoly in Europe's small market for GMO crops.
The EU has only ever approved two other GMO crops for commercial cultivation, a maize type and a potato, but the potato was later blocked by a court.
In November, the Commission, the EU executive, proposed that governments should approve the new maize type and a vote is expected on Tuesday next week.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said: "The German government has agreed to abstain … It is normal procedure to abstain on a dossier where there are different opinions within the government on the matter."
EU diplomats expect the meeting of EU ministers to fail to reach a definitive agreement. Under the EU's decision-making process, a deadlock would allow the executive Commission to then make a final decision.
Some have said this could lead to the Commission unilaterally approving the maize but EU diplomats said it was very unclear what the Commission would do because even if the vote on Tuesday is inconclusive in strict legal terms, many member states are expected to oppose approval.
"If from a political point of view, a large number of member states are opposed, on that basis, the Commission would have to reflect," one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
"The abstention … by the federal government opens the way for approval of the genetically modified maize type 1507 in the European Union," said Alexander Bonde, the opposition Green Party's state consumer protection minister in the south German Baden-Wuerttemberg state government.
Germany's grand coalition government is still developing its policy on the cultivation of GMO crops, German agriculture minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said on January 16.
Germany's stance is a blow for France which opposes the GMO and lobbied Germany heavily on the issue, notably during a visit of the German farm minister to Paris in early January.
"We take note of the German decision," a French farm ministry official said. "This does not question France's position which clearly remains to keep a ban on genetically modified organisms."
France on Wednesday launched an attempt to restore a ban on genetically modified (GMO) maize annulled by its top court to avoid sowings this spring.
Britain's farm minister has called for a yes vote for cultivation of the maize type.
Environmentalists noted that the European Food Safety Authority has released a number of scientific opinions highlighting the impact of a toxin released by 1507.
"The approval of this crop would be utterly irresponsible. The EU's own safety testing has shown that it is harmful to butterflies and moths and that there are still significant gaps in safety testing," Mark Breddy, spokesman at Greenpeace in Brussels, said.
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.
The proposal, however, has been subject to bitter divisions between EU member states and the proposal remains blocked.
In the EU only two GM crops are approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, and potatoes with modified starch for industrial use.
Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.
To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.