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Field trials with GM potatoes and wheat destroyed

“Brutal, targeted attack”

On the nights of 9 and 11 July 2011, two field trials funded by the German Ministry of Research involving genetically modified plants were destroyed by unknown attackers, who used brutal violence against the guards. The trials in Gross Lüsewitz near Rostock and in Üplingen (Saxony-Anhalt) were being used to develop new risk assessment methods. The vandalism caused damage worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

Destroyed field trial Groß Lüsewitz July 2011

In Gross Lüsewitz two 265 m2 trial fields of potatoes and wheat were destroyed.

Destroyed field trial Üplingen July 2011

Destroyed trial field of potatoes in the Üplingen display garden.

Several masked attackers overpowered the guards at the trial sites and held them. According to Project Leader Kerstin Schmidt (biovativ GmbH), the attack was targeted and brutal. In one case, the attackers were armed with bats and pepper spray; in another they took the guard’s mobile phone, stabbed his car tyres and blinded him with headlights.

Part of the destroyed trials with GM potatoes and wheat belonged to a joint project involving SMEs and universities and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The aim of BioOK, an ‘innovative regional growth pole’, is to make the approval processes for GM plants cheaper, safer and more effective, according to project partner Inge Broer (University of Rostock). The project is developing an integrated testing system for the approval of GM plants to replace many of the different time-consuming analyses involved in the current risk assessment process.

The destroyed potatoes produce a raw material for plastic manufacture called cyanophycin. This could replace oil as a raw material in plastic production. The genetically modified wheat was developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and is resistant to certain fungal diseases.

According to Broer, only large international agricultural corporations can currently afford the approval process for GM crops, which lasts up to ten years and costs over EUR 10 million. The new risk assessment methods would make it possible to reduce approval costs to a level that even small and medium-sized European plant breeders could afford. “The current dominant position of large corporations on the market for GM crops is one of the key criticisms made by genetic engineering opponents. So it makes no sense at all that the trials destroyed at both sites were the ones from the growth pole project.” The destruction is a severe setback to the improvement of the approval process.

Crop destruction incidents increasing

According to statistics published by the German Plant Breeders’ Association (BDP), there has been a significant increase in crop destructions in recent years. In 2009, around half of all field trials in Germany were destroyed by radical genetic engineering opponents. The trial field in Gross Lüsewitz had already been destroyed once in 2009 without the perpetrators being brought to justice. This year, six out of a total of 16 field trials have already been destroyed. The Federal Criminal Police Office registered a total of 210 politically motivated criminal acts between 2005 and 2010 in conjunction with genetic engineering. Kerstin Schmidt expressed the opinion that an almost universal policy of fear with regard to genetic engineering across all political parties could encourage criminal acts.

In a public appeal in 2010, all the German institutions conducting field trials with GM plants warned against a further radicalisation of the anti-genetic engineering movement and called for systematic criminal prosecution of crop destroyers. The negative impacts of the destructions for Germany as a research location were, they claimed, already visible: the number of field trials has fallen from 80 in 2007 to just 16. At the same time, research institutes and plant breeders are increasingly moving their research activities abroad.

Politicians from almost all political parties condemned the attacks. Claudia Schulz, the spokeswoman for the agriculture and nature conservation group within the German Green Party, said she could understand the crop destroyers’ motivation because there was no way of preventing genetic engineering trials in Germany. “However,” she added, “crop destructions are counter-productive and never help”.

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