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2-Plants: New hope for green biotechnology in Germany



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TITLE:  New hope for green biotechnology in Germany
SOURCE: Handelsblatt, Germany by Catrin Bialek
        Translated by Rupert Schutz, Checkbiotech, Switzerland
        http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?
fuseaction=newsletter&topic_id=1&subtopic_id=1&doc_id=11125
DATE:   31 Aug 2005

------------------ archive:  http://www.genet-info.org/ ------------------


New hope for green biotechnology in Germany

DÜSSELDORF - Green biotechnology has so far led a shadowy existence in
Germany. Scientists and entrepreneurs now see their chance. The German
Christian Democratic and the Liberal Parties want to change the rigid course.

Among other things, this is also because last year, the Second Genetic
Engineering Act further tightened the conditions for cultivation of
genetically modified plants.

"Under laboratory conditions one can do almost everything here, but to
move to outdoor tests isn't feasible at the moment," states Ricardo Gent,
managing director of the German Association of Biotechnology Industries.

With a possible change of government, scientists and entrepreneurs now
see a gleam of hope. Politicians from the German Christian Democratic and
the Liberal Parties announced that they want to correct the current rigid
policy regarding green biotechnology.

For the advocates of the green biotechnology, its advantages are quite
obvious: by means of green genetic engineering, food and fodder crops can
become resistant to parasites and herbicides, they can endure extreme
temperatures such as heat or cold better and bring a higher yield altogether.

In principle, modern genetic engineering pursues the same aims as the
traditional plant breeding à la Gregor Mendel.

It's with the help of Mendel's laws of inheritance, discovered around
1900, that plant breeders try to combine as many positive characteristics
of a line as possible.

The genebank in Gatersleben plays an important role in Germany in
preserving the natural genetic diversity of the plants. It is one of the
world's largest collections of agricultural and horticultural plants, in
which approximately 150,000 plants are archived. Every year,
approximately 13,000 samples are given to plant breeders and enterprises
free of charge. "We pursue a protective role that is rather the opposite
of green biotechnology," states Andreas Garner, director of the gene bank.

The traditional breedering has reached its limits, a fact that agrarian
scientist Garner also knows well. For example, with the help of green
biotechnology, it is possible to purposefully bring a single gene into an
organism, as in vitamin E into rapeseed for example.

"Green biotechnology is the next logical step in plant breeding", says
Gerhard Wenzel, president of the Society for Plant Breeding.

Garner supplemented the gene bank with a molecular-genetic analysis of
these plants. Therefore, green genetic engineering nevertheless still
entered the gene bank, if seemingly through the backdoor. At present,
researchers in Gatersleben are occupied, for instance, in decoding the
genome of barley - a genome, which by the way is far more complex than
that of humans.

"We need genome research to understand the functioning of a plant,"
Garner said.

Rice is one plant whose genome has already been decoded. This new
knowledge aided researchers in developing the so called Golden Rice
variety. It is a genetically modified rice variety with elevated vitamin
A levels. In developing countries, many individuals go blind due to a
lack of vitamin A. But the global hurdles are high - so far no approval
for commercial use has been granted for this designer rice.

In Germany, hurdles are particularly high as well, where only parasite
resistant Bt corn is cultivated - on a manageable area of about 300
hectares. Originally more than 1,000 hectares of Bt corn were announced
for this year, but due to protests and damages, farmers have reset their
projects as the coordinating federation Innoplanta in Gartersleben informed.

Opponents of genetic engineering, such as Greenpeace, are concerned about
the allegedly non-calculable risks of this new technology. Gent, from the
industrial union of biotechnology, cannot understand such arguments.
"Genetically modified plants pass a very strict approval process, in
which all risks are eliminated," he said. "This incidentally doesn't take
place with conventional varieties."

But hardly anyone makes it to the approval stage in Germany. In part,
because of the need for outdoor tests, which are almost impossible to
carry out in Germany due to liability regulations and low threshold values.

The consequences: scientists often continue their basic research which
was successfully begun in Germany in other countries. As a result, a
while ago, a project to produce rapeseed oil with elevated vitamin E
content, shifted from Germany to Canada. Recently, outdoor tests were
performed, varieties were registered and these plants are now marketed
out of Canada.

Cultivation world-wide

Up to now, more than 90 different transgenic varieties were certified for
commercial use. The majority of cultivation come from genetically
modified varieties of soy and corn (62% and 21% respectively), followed
by transgenic cotton (12%) and rapeseed (5%).

Global cultivation of transgenic plants rose from 1.7 million hectares in
1996 to 67.7 millions of hectares in 2004. The size of the global market
for transgenic seed was of approximately USD 4.5 billion in 2003 - a
buoyant market.

Approximately 99 percent of the global cultivation of transgenic plants
comes from six main farming countries: USA, Argentina, Canada, Brazil,
China and South Africa. With its several hundred of hectares, Germany
lies far behind.



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