Greens rally against invasion of the killer corncobs

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The Independent Online
The day of the Triffids is upon us, if we are to believe the German media. Scientists have spliced together the genes of different organisms, creating a hybrid that can kill insects, is immune to herbicides and resistant to antibiotics. Germany is leading the charge against this monster in Europe; a battle that could become as vicious as the beef war.

The new life form is firmly rooted to the ground, devoid of malign intelligence - as far as anyone is aware - yet Germans are convinced it poses the greatest threat to mankind's survival on this planet since BSE. We are talking maize, the plant from which cornflakes are made. A variety has been genetically engineered by the Swiss pharmaceuticals firm Ciba-Geigy to secrete its own poison against the bugs that would feed on it. Nobody in Europe wants it except the French, but nowhere else on the Continent has this dispute caught the public's imagination as in Germany.

Last week Bonn officials tried to ambush the creature in the corridors of the European Commission, but although France was outvoted in the meeting of environment ministers, Brussels could still use its power to smuggle it into the EU. Germany has vowed to fight on, just as it has opposed every other recombinant form of vegetable or animal life. This is the country where you cannot buy the genetically engineered tomatoes available in British supermarkets, or many of the medicines produced elsewhere by biotechnology.

Those tomatoes, bred for a firm skin and an amazing shelf life, are a source of wonder frequently commented upon by reports from the brave new worlds of Britain and the US. But in Germany they strike terror in the populace, whipping up an atmosphere that is driving the science of the future underground.

Bureaucratic restrictions on genetic engineering are so strict that a major pharmaceutical company has recently been forbidden by the environmentally friendly Land of North Rhine-Westphalia to manufacture human insulin for medical use. The firm is now producing abroad. Research institutes have been forced to erect top-security fences, not so much to confine their creations to the lab than to guard against terrorist attacks. Molecular biologists keep their occupation secret from all but their closest friends, biotechnology firms are relocating and those that remain can only function by circumventing the rules.

In a country obsessed with the environment - witness the Brent Spar controversy - eco-zealots have seized on DNA as the symbol of Man's destructive tinkering with Nature. Diagrams of the double helix adorn Green stalls on the main squares of Germany's towns. The tomatoes, sheep-goat chimeras, and now the killer maize lurking on the country's borders are the new totems of the Green movement; the ecologists' final frontier.

A growing number of Lander where the Greens have entered government show an open hostility to genetic research. Those who mess with DNA can expect years of shrinking funds. Despite their pariah status, Germany still boasts some of the finest molecular biologists in Europe, but their talents can only be commercially exploited in Green-free zones. Most biotechnology firms that remain in Germany have moved to Bavaria, a conservative one- party state since the war.

Scientists attribute the mounting public mistrust to ignorance. Even today, the biology course for the secondary school certificate, the Abitur, only gets as far as the state of knowledge 30 years ago, before genetic engineering was dreamt up. The science pages of newspapers are uninformative, and there is no equivalent to Tomorrow's World.

But lack of understanding is not the only reason why DNA is viewed with only slightly less suspicion than plutonium. After their successes in forcing through legislation to protect the environment, the Greens have been running out of causes.

Thanks to their efforts, rubbish now has to be sorted and recycled, pollution is being cut, and the forests, it turns out, are not dying of acid rain after all. Genetic engineering and its environmental effects, however, are here to stay, and are set to provide the momentum for the Greens' recruitment drive well into the next century.