Germany's High Court Preserves Restrictions on GM Crops

Germany's high court today has upheld the country's law governing genetically modified (GM) crops. The law, originally passed in 2004 and modified slightly in 2008, holds farmers—and researchers—who plant GM crops liable for any pollen that escapes to neighbors' fields and makes any crops contaminated this way unmarketable as GM-free. It also requires a buffer zone between GM and conventional crops, and it mandates a public database that includes the locations of all GM plantings.

The German state of Saxony-Anhalt challenged the law's compatibility with Germany's Basic Law (the country's constitution), claiming it unduly limited farmers' "professional freedom," and that the database was an invitation to anti-GM activists to destroy crops. It also argued that the law turned any field trials of GM crops into an "incalculable economic risk" for seed companies.

But the national high court's ruling came down firmly on the side of the law's restrictions. "With the possibility to deliberately make changes in the genome, genetic engineering influences the elementary structures of life," the court wrote. "The consequences of such interventions can be, if any, difficult to undo."

The court seems to consider GM crops an unfinished experiment. "In view of science's still unfinished assessment of the long-term consequences of the use of genetic engineering, the legislature has a special duty to be careful and to consider Article 20a, which includes responsibility to future generations and protecting the natural environment," the court wrote. Article 20a is an article in Germany's Basic Law, added in 1994, that declares that the state "shall protect the natural bases of life." Today's ruling is the first time the high court has referred to the article in a decision.