Romanticism and Reality

German Agriculture Minister on genetic engineering and Israel


Minister Schmidt and JVG Editor Elisabeth Neu

What gives you the most satisfaction as agriculture minister?

It makes me very happy that rural areas are still economically vigorous, and agriculture is largely to thank for that. It’s very important, especially in light of our country’s demographic trends.

What is the biggest challenge?
Many people can no longer relate to life in the countryside. People have idealized notions and forget that agriculture has to be intensive to put enough food on the table. Harmonizing romanticism with reality is an exciting job.

What do you emphasize most?
Three points are especially important to me: First, the development of rural areas and their preservation as attractive economic and ecological spaces. Second, exporting our very high-quality agricultural products. And third, as Germany’s Minister of Food and Agriculture, I am also responsible that food safety here maintains its high standard, so that consumers need not fear any substantial dangers for their health in this area.

You are a transatlanticist and the President of the German Atlantic Association. Do you support the TTIP negotiations?
Yes, I firmly support the negotiations. I don’t think much of the argument that we would lose out in competition. Anyone afraid of competition has already lost. However, the issue of standards in agriculture and other areas will be difficult to agree on. Because of its process safety and process hygiene, Europe has a different approach to food safety than the US. The trick will be to prevent a few issues from forcing the negotiations to return to square one.

In the US, genetically manipulated foods are part of everyday life, in Germany less so. What are Germans afraid of?
First of all, with medicines and immunizations produced through genetic engineering no one expresses any reservations, even if these contain live, genetically manipulated organisms. Or in so-called “white genetic technology,” the use of genetically manipulated microorganisms in the production of food ingredients such as vitamins, flavors or also of enzymes, which are used for example in making cheeses or bakery goods. There is a pragmatic argument that anyone who wants genetically modified products can have them, and whoever doesn’t can turn elsewhere. So that this freedom of choice functions, in contrast to the US we have the fundamental requirement to label genetically modified foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Several big German companies, notably BASF, are transferring their genetic research and technology operations abroad. Should we in Germany be a bit more open, within the boundaries of safety?
I support the continued development of genetic research in Germany – which, incidentally, was originated in Germany. The fact that BASF Crop is now mainly in the US is the consequence of an iconoclastic attitude toward research here. I cannot accept that. We must have space for genetic research, just as in other research areas, so long as it is ethically justifiable and limitable in its effects.

Can we bring research back?
I hope so! That is also part of the additional research investment that the federal budget is devoting 3 billion euros to. My principle, and ours, should not be to dictate to research centers what they work on, with the exception of ethical issues, such as cloning.

Is there innovative collaboration in agriculture between Israel and Germany?
Yes, I’ve supported it and expanded our cooperation with Agricultural Minister Shamir. For instance, we have turned our attention to the problem that male chicks are killed after hatching because they are worthless for the producers. That raises ethical questions. In both Germany and Israel we are working on a method, “ex ovo,” to determine the egg’s gender at an early stage, to know whether a male or female chick will hatch. Then the egg can be treated accordingly, so that we don’t have any living animals that immediately have to be killed.

From 1994 to 1998 you headed the German-Israeli Parliamentary Group. What perspectives do you see in the German-Israeli relationship?
It may sound pessimistic, but currently I don’t see any big initiatives that can have an effect. Nothing is moving forward at the moment. We have little influence on Abbas and his relationship to Hamas. Fatah and Hamas are, in my opinion, an emergency community of parties stranded by world politics. The latest rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip show that the idea of destroying Israel is very much alive and a political program. It’s understandable that Israel defends itself against that.

In March 2008 Chancellor Merkel told the Knesset that “Israel’s security is non-negotiable for us.” In Israeli security circles people are outraged that the already-negotiated delivery of corvettes is being blocked or at least obstructed in light of Israel’s settlement policy. How do those two fit together?
I won’t comment on this particular case. There is no absolute precondition. It is a question of what we believe needs to be done, especially in the two-state solution. The Chancellor expressed the position of the federal government during her visit to Israel. We believe that the construction of settlements has to end. For me, that means beyond the specific issue of the corvettes that this is a dialogue among friends, not a topic that will lead to contacts being frozen.

Including in arms sales?
Germany is in the process of launching a very intensive cooperation with Israel in the area of unmanned aircraft, and will continue to do so.

Moving on to Europe, Vladimir Putin has his eyes on neo-Russian, neo-Soviet irredentism, a kind of imperialism. How can this policy be slowed or even stopped?
First of all, by naming it clearly and unmistakably. Second, by pointing out the annexation of Crimea that violated international law. Third, we must find a European position. The possible third level of sanctions will then most likely also be economically more unpleasant. It is regrettable that the US approach is a different one than the European one. That way sanctions sometimes lose their bite.

Should there be violence in the Baltic states because of the Russian minorities there, a clash between Russia and NATO could result …
Despite it all I believe in Putin’s rationality. I assume that he knows that where the flags of the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union stand, he has nothing to gain in this respect.

Last question: How do you stay close to the people and maintain your personal humility?
When one is politically active only in Berlin, that vanity fair, there’s always the danger of losing touch with reality. After I go somewhere else, and sometimes find myself in cowsheds, the danger isn’t so great anymore. But when I notice that I’ve set up my own little stand at this fair, I think of Pope John XXIII – “Giovanni, don’t take yourself so seriously.”  ■

Federal Minister Christian Schmidt talked to JVG editors Elisabeth Neu and Rafael Seligmann at the Reichstag building/German Bundestag in Berlin






Photo Credit: JVG

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