ENVIRONMENTALISTS RESORT TO PHYSICAL DAMAGE : Wheat field trial destruction: GM opponents must pay

(19.06.2009) In Magdeburg, capital city of the German province of Saxony-Anhalt, the regional court last week sentenced six opponents of gene technology to compensation of damage caused. In April 2008, the defendants had destroyed a field trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat in the nearby village of Gatersleben. The magnitude of the compensation has not yet been set.

The court determined that the four women and two men acted against the law on the April 21, 2008 as they entered the field trial area and destroyed wheat plants. The gene-technology opponents must pay the cost of this harm. In a civil suit, the plaintiff Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben) claimed the equivalent of 245,000 euros in damage. However, the court recognised only a value of 104,000 euros as legitimate.

The anti-gene-technology activists now have four weeks in which to assume a position. Subsequently, the court will decide upon the sum to be paid. According to a speaker for the court, an application by two defendants for aid with legal costs has been rejected due to “malicious behaviour”.

Two genes from barley and broad beans had been introduced into the GM wheat developed by the IPK. The transport of specific building blocks of protein into the wheat kernels is expected to be improved thereby and consequently to enhance the quality of the resulting animal feed. The aim of the field trial was to test the manner in which this concept functions, as well as the behaviour of the GM wheat under open field conditions.

Gene-technology opponents had objected to the field trial primarily due to its proximity to the Gatersleben gene bank, in which 150,000 seed samples from 3,000 types of plants including wheat are kept. Each year, a portion of these samples are planted on small lots and propagated. Fears exist that the GM wheat could out-cross into such samples and thereby endanger the seed stores. The activists had cited the German legal concept of “√ľbergesetzlicher Notstand” (“extra-statutory necessity”) in claiming the destruction as a legitimate instrument towards avoiding damage to the gene bank.

The IPK Gatersleben as well as the agencies responsible for approval had ruled out the possibility that the field trial could pose a threat to the gene bank. The trial lots were separated from the propagation lots of the gene bank by a distance of 500 metres. Furthermore, wheat is self-pollinating, which allows the reliable elimination of out-crossing. The gene bank in Gatersleben has propagated numerous wheat types from a variety of provenances for fifty years without a case of intermixing to date.

After the destruction, IPK discontinued field trials with the developed GM wheat in Germany.