Germany bans Novartis GM maize

"Sensational" last-minute health ministry ruling seen as further blow to biotechnology industry

In what environmental groups have described as a "sensational" move, German health minister Andrea Fischer yesterday called a last minute halt to authorisation for a genetically modified (GM) crop variety. Germany's competent authority for seed registration, the Robert Koch Institute, was to have approved the dossier today.

Under EU law, GM sequences to be placed in crops must first be authorised under the 1990 "deliberate release" directive, currently being revised and strengthened. The GM sequence, or "event" in this case was approved in 1997. Then, actual plant varieties containing approved GM sequences must be licensed by national plant registration offices. It is this process that was halted by Ms Fischer yesterday.

Germany has invoked article 16 of the deliberate release directive to stop the authorisation. This allows EU member states to prohibit use of a GM crop variety if there is new scientific evidence of risk. Austria and Luxembourg both banned the same GM crop in 1997 on this pretext (ENDS Daily 6 February 1997). France, Portugal, Italy and the UK have all subsequently introduced restrictions, though none is thought to have invoked the article 16 procedure.

The GM crop variety now banned by Germany is a maize variety called "Windsor," containing the GM event 176, developed by Swiss agricultural biotechnology firm Novartis. Event 176 makes plants pest resistant by expressing the "Bt" bacterial toxin gene, resistant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium and resistant to three kinds of antibiotics.

According to the government, the "new evidence" justifying a ban is recent scientific work suggesting that crops expressing the Bt toxin gene could harm Monarch butterflies (ENDS Daily 21 May 1999), lacewings and soil microfauna. A health ministry spokesperson told ENDS Daily that a report by the independent Öko Institute had also raised new fears over the antibiotic resistance marker genes in event 176.

However, some observers suggest the ban was politically driven. One source told ENDS Daily that there had been "panic" reaching up to senior levels in the government when it was realised that Germany's first ever cultivation approval for a transgenic crop was about to go through while the EU deliberate release directive was still being revised and after EU environment ministers had instituted a virtual moratorium on new approvals under the law (ENDS Daily 24 June 1999).

Follow Up:
German health ministry, tel: +49 228 9410. Öko Institute, tel: +49 761 452 950.

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