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German Bundestag positive about new Genetic Engineering Law

On 25th January, the German Bundestag gave the go ahead for the new version of the German Genetic Engineering Law. The new version incorporates the introduction of the “Not genetically engineered” label as well as stricter regulations on the cultivation of genetically modified plants. In future, consumers will be able to more easily differentiate non-genetically engineered food from genetically modified food. However, the law only comes into effect once it has been ratified by the German Bundesrat. This decision will be made in the middle of February.

Genetically modified (GM) food has been on the market since the 1990s and mainly relates to food made from soy and maize. The cultivation and handling of genetically modified organisms (GMO) such as animals, plants and microorganisms has been regulated by the German Genetic Engineering Law since 1990. The draft of the new law, which was passed by the German Parliament on 25th January, envisages the amendment of different laws and regulations. It is known as the “Law on amendments to the genetic engineering law, on alterations of the German law regulating the implementation of the European provisions in the field of GMOs (EGGenTDurchfG) and on amendments to novel food and food additives regulation”.

“Not genetically engineered” label on milk, meat, eggs and cheese

The new law anticipates that the label “Not genetically engineered” will allow consumers to be able to choose between traditional and GM food. The label, which has been in use since 1998, is currently only used for products in which genetic engineering is excluded from all processing steps. The new law guarantees that meat, milk and eggs are produced from animals that are not fed on genetically engineered feedstuffs. In plant products, contamination of up to 0.9 per cent from neighbouring GM fields is permitted. Both conventional food and ecological food can be labelled with “Not genetically engineered”. However, the label does not exclude the use of genetically engineered additives such as enzymes, vitamins, amino acids or vaccines that might in exceptional cases be used for the production of food. Such additives are for example included in feedstuff blends. If genetically modified additives are used for the production of such feedstuffs, they must be approved by the EU Eco-Regulation, and a genetic engineering-free alternative must not be available.

Minimum distances – farmers are liable

Maize field (Photo: Norbert Lehmann/www.biosicherheit.de)
The new law introduces the following minimum distances: There must be a distance of 150 metres between fields with GM maize and those with conventional maize cultures; there must be a distance of 300 metres between fields with ecological maize cultures and those with conventional maize cultures. It is believed that the distance prevents genetically modified maize seeds from germinating on neighbouring fields and from maize unintentionally being used as GM-free seeds. Numerous trials have shown that a distance of 150 metres leads to GM entries of 0.1 per cent, which is considerably lower than the threshold value of 0.9 per cent which turns food into GM food.

As a matter of principle, neighbouring farmers might be able to agree on lesser distances between fields with genetically modified and conventional maize than the prescribed 150 or 300 metres. In addition, GM crop farmers must inform their neighbours about potential legal consequences. The agreement must be entered in the location register. If genetically modified plants are found in a field with non-genetically modified plants, the farmer who has sown the GM product is liable for any potential damages.

Genetic engineering location register

The GMO location register will in future also contain data about where, when and which genetically modified plants are cultivated in Germany. The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) collects information about all areas on which genetically modified plants are or will be cultivated. This affects both commercial application and research. This public register was met with criticism because militant opponents of genetic engineering had repeatedly destroyed research fields.

Schavan: transparency in research and cultivation

Regarding the amendment to the German Genetic Engineering Law, Federal Research Minister, Annette Schavan, explained in Berlin on the 25th of January: “The amendment to the genetic engineering law contributes to the strengthening of research in Germany. Simplified approval methods will enable scientists to work better. German research institutions will now be able to expand their internationally recognized expertise in green genetic engineering. The genetic engineering law leads to transparency in research and cultivation as well as increased safety for consumers. In addition, the law takes also into account the economic concerns of farmers. We must now engage in a public dialogue about the opportunities green genetic engineering will open up. This includes for example the optimisation of plants for the production of bioenergy or the necessary adaptation of agricultural crops to climate change."

Genetic engineering is being talked about everywhere – is novel food surreptitiously on the advance?

Until 2004, genetically modified foods were governed by the Novel Food Regulation, according to which novel foods and food additives were only able to enter the European market after having gone through a European approval procedure. When “gene food” was taken out of this regulation and included in a separate EU regulation, the debate about novel food was hardly noticed by the wider public. Nowadays, supermarket shelves contain margarine with phytosterols that are held to lower the cholesterol level. Now the novel foods market has a higher profile, and both the food industry and the World Trade Organisation are calling for simpler approval procedures.

On the 14th January 2008, the European Commission put forward a proposal to change the regulation on novel foods in order to improve access to new and innovative foods on the EU market at the same time as maintaining a high level of consumer protection. The draft of this regulation foresees simpler and more efficient approval procedures for novel foods, which will make it possible to launch safe and innovative foods more rapidly on the EU market.

An example of this is Stevia, which will also be regulated by the new novel food regulation. Stevia rebaudiana produces stevioside, a natural, almost zero-calorie substance that is two to three hundred times sweeter than sugar. The approval of Stevia was rejected in 1999 because of health concerns. With easier approval procedures, this situation might now change.

Source: German Bundestag, EU Commission, aid infodienst

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/german-bundestag-positive-about-new-genetic-engineering-law