The latest food-news from Germany: The German Federal Office for Plant Varieties ("Bundessortenamt") is allowing one hundred kilograms of a potato variety named "Linda" to be planted for "research purposes only", in 2008. Whether or not it will be allowed to be sold should be decided Fall, 2008.
So why would anyone care? There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes, surely you could find another that you like. And why does the government care what potatoes are grown and sold, anyway?
Patents and money.
Over thirty years ago, in 1974, a plant breeder named Europlant registered Linda as a new type of potato with the German government. The government inspected the research, found Linda worthy, and gave Europlant the right to grow and sell Linda seed potatoes and collect royalties for 30 years. Linda was a good seller and increased her market share steadily.
Fast forward to December, 2004, shortly before Linda's patent was set to expire and the potato could be grown by anyone. Europlant, as allowed by law, removed Linda from the list of registered plant varieties. No longer registered, Linda could not legally be grown or sold in Germany. This upset a lot of people, including several organic farmers who grew and liked Linda's qualities for organic farming.
It wasn't just about the fact that Linda was a good and tasty potato. It was that the breeder was able to and removed the variety from the German market, with the excuse that there were now better varieties to sell, ones that just happened to still be under patent protection. They also cited worries that the quality of seed stock would decline if they weren't controlling it, perhaps harming their reputation.
To get Linda back on the market, the German government required a new application with new research, a costly and redundant regulation. The farmers interested in Linda didn't have much money and, besides, Linda had been researched thoroughly by Europlant and on the open market. The farmers asked the Federal Office for Plant Varieties to lengthen the residual time that Linda was allowed on the market, from June 2005 to June 2007, while the farmers did the necessary research to register Linda as a "new" variety.
Europlant promptly tried to stop the continuance and, when they were unsuccessful, filed suit against the Federal Office for Plant Varieties for damages because they had already destroyed potatoes and plant stock worth millions. The suit was dismissed by the courts.
Eventually through mediation, Europlant agreed to grow and sell Linda for two more years (through 2007) while the application by the farmers was being studied. In order to keep the potato viable, another 100 kilograms was given to the farmers in the spring of 2008 to plant for research only, waiting for the final outcome in the fall of 2008 (source: Hamburger Abendblatt.
At the same time, the farmers have applied for a Europe-wide registration, which would override the German decision.
Wow, that's a lot of effort for one type of potato. We Americans don't even know what kind of potato we are buying much of the time. We have to settle for "red", "blue" or "white". If we are lucky we can find some Yukon Gold, which are prized because they can do anything in the kitchen. Why are the Germans so obsessed?
Why do Germans Always Talk About Food?
Americans, being very North America-centric, often believe that they have the most innovative technologies, are the greenest, and are dedicated to growing the best food. We have made inroads in these areas: We are the only country which has put people on the moon, people now bring their own bags to the supermarket and the Seed Savers organization works to preserve heirloom vegetables, but Germany still has us beat in many respects.
Food news in the US has been limited to what can make us sick. Do you recall the controversy about GMO? How about the ethical treatment of chickens or trip limits for livestock? How food is produced it is not what the general population seems to care about, but only whether it is safe to eat. Whereas we see little news about genetically modified organisms (GMO) anymore, a great many Germans still oppose them. This is part of the free-trade disagreement between the US and the FRG. Germany also has a very well developed system for identifying organic products for the consumer (Bioland, Demeter, etc.), and has a large "Slow Food" movement.
I have my theories about why Germans are so well organized and agitate in these areas.
- Germany is about the size of California, making movements and protests easier to organize.
- Germany received a large part of the fallout from Chernobyl, making them very aware of the risks of complacency.
- Germans still carry World War II and the food shortages around in their collective memories.
- Germans have never bought into capitalism completely, like in the US. Their largest political party are socialists (SPD) and their third largest is the Green party (die Grüne).
I, for one, like to remind myself every so often that the world is larger than the US and that issues have many sides. Do you think it's important to think about the food everyone eats? Should food be as cheap as possible or as good as possible? Do you worry about how your meat is treated while it is alive? Chime in on the German food forum about this or anything else on your mind.