BioWorld International Correspondent

MUNICH, Germany - Germany's political leaders are still wrestling with national regulations for agricultural biotechnology.

A law passed in November was supposed to resolve questions about field trials and commercial planting of genetically modified organisms. The law also was intended to implement a European Union directive on agricultural biotech, ending a long dispute on the subject with the U.S. According to the EU schedule, its directive should have been incorporated into national law in 2002.

Championed by the Green party, which is part of the ruling coalition at the national level, the German law was one of the most restrictive in the EU. As originally written, it would have required farmers who plant modified crops to enter that fact into a publicly accessible register. They also would potentially be financially liable if nearby farms were unable to sell their harvest as unmodified, even if it could not be determined from which place modified crops had spread.

The draft was blocked in parliament's upper house. A revised version, without the provision for a public register but with the liability issues, passed in March. One of Germany's state governments has appealed to the country's highest court to prevent the law's implementation. (See BioWorld International, April 27, 2005.)

A second law regulating agricultural biotechnology failed to pass parliament's upper house the first week of May. The ruling coalition is negotiating with the opposition over changes to the second law. The coalition hopes to win approval without watering down the liability provisions.

Renate Kuenast, minister for consumer protection, food and agriculture, framed the question of liability as one of protecting farmers who produce certified organic crops, or who simply choose not to use genetically modified organisms.

"Then the question has to be, what should [an organic] farmer do if he ends up with cross-breeds, and because of this contamination, his fields cannot be certified as organic again for years, if not for decades?" asked Kuenast in an interview with the national radio. "He'll have to declare bankruptcy, close up shop."

Kuenast said that she also could see supporting a compromise that would create a liability fund to compensate farmers who lost money because their crops were found to contain genetically modified organisms.

"Not only farmers should contribute to such a fund," she said, "but also seed producers and the industry as a whole."

The opposition-led state governments are pushing back on the regulations in the November 2004 law. In negotiations over the second law, they are demanding fewer restrictions on farmers' freedom to plant modified crops.

A date for consideration of a compromise version in the upper house has not been set. Because Germany has not yet implemented the EU directive, the country could eventually be fined millions of euros for failure to live up to its obligations. No timetable for an action leading to fines has been set, and such penalties are relatively rare under EU law.