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Second round table discussion on agricultural biotechnology

Second round table discussion on agricultural biotechnology: Schavan sees progress

“Today we have made good progress. It was a concentrated, intense debate,” was how Germany’s minister of research, Annette Schavan, summarized the second round table on agricultural biotechnology in Berlin, to which she had invited representatives from science, food and agriculture, environmental associations and churches. The main topics were the criticisms levelled by environmental associations at biological safety research and key areas of future agricultural and plant research in Germany.

The first round table, held in mid-May, had been dominated by an exchange of established views between critics and supporters of plant biotechnology, so the idea behind the second discussion round was to identify future topics and issues for publicly-funded agricultural and plant research and environmental safety research. Although the round table did not produce a concrete result, first signs of a rapprochement were visible behind the entrenched positions of the opposing sides of the discussion.

Research Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) moderated the round table discussion. “The only way to avoid farmers becoming dependent on industry is through public research.”

Photo: BMBF

Right at the beginning, Annette Schavan mentioned the nine-point checklist for ecological risk research that the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and other environmental associations had presented at the start of the week. It criticises the safety research currently funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and develops nine research questions on the topic of sustainability and ecological risks, which the associations believe have not yet been dealt with in sufficient depth. Among other things, it calls for systematic recording of the effects of genetically modified MON810 maize and research into the spread of transgenes by bees, bumblebees and other pollinators.

Representatives of approval bodies and research institutions argued that eight of the nine points in the list relate to aspects that have to be answered within the food and environmental safety assessments carried out as part of the approval procedure, and are already being studied as part of the accompanying biosafety research. For this reason, they argued, there were no systematic, fundamental knowledge gaps in the safety research on genetically modified plants.

Schavan announced that she would be pursuing the points proposed by the environmental associations in detail. “At the next meeting we will be presenting the results of 30 years of biosafety research and we will see which other areas we need to focus on in future.”

“Promoting sustainable land use concepts must be the primary aim of agricultural and plant research”

The second key topic of the round table was the future focus of agricultural and plant research, including plant biotechnology and accompanying biosafety research. The BMBF had presented a first outline of a refined strategy for plant breeding. It started with a stock-take of the current research programmes of the two relevant German ministries – the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV).

Schavan suggested that the different areas of research funding should be more closely integrated and announced that they would be developed further, especially with regard to the sustainability issue. Here she was also addressing one of the demands of the environmental associations, who are calling for more intensive promotion of research into ecosystem relationships and sustainable land use systems. This includes systematically assessing all agricultural cultivation systems, whether conventional, organic or using genetically modified plants, for their environmental and economic sustainability.

In agricultural and plant research, Schavan and her ministry are focusing on an “open-method” strategy of support. The method chosen in each case was not “an end in itself, but a means to an end.” The whole range of technologies available, including plant biotechnology, must, she said, be discussed with an open mind, even when comparing them with other research approaches. What mattered was how the best possible result for the environment, farmers and consumers could be achieved.

Annette Schavan summed up by saying, “The round table discussions have confirmed that against the background of global problems, plant biotechnology needs to be seen in all its different facets. It is this differentiated approach that will yield results in an objective dialogue.”

Schavan announced another round table discussion for October that will focus on international development cooperation in plant and agricultural research.

The round table on agricultural biotechnology was launched in mid-May by Germany’s ministers of research (Schavan) and agriculture (Aigner) after the temporary ban on cultivating MON810, issued by Aigner, met with harsh criticism, especially from scientists. Two new members joined the second round table: an organic farming representative and a representative of non-government organisations in the area of development policy. The agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, did not attend the second round table in person.