Monday, December 5, 2011

The American Embassy in Berlin

27 September 2011

While in Berlin, we had the pleasure of meeting with Frau Sabine Lieberz and Mr. Paul Spencer of the Foreign Agriculture Service at the American Embassy. There was extremely high security at this location. Our passports were checked twice, we went through a metal detector, and we had to surrender our cameras, phones, and passports before entering. The building itself was constructed between 2004 and 2008. It is in an excellent location on the Pariser Platz, nearly next to the Brandenburg Gate. The Embassy was dedicated by President George H.W. Bush in 2008.

Mr. Spencer explained that the primary role of the Foreign Ag Service in Germany is to handle trade issues. Germans have concerns over many scientific advances in agriculture. Biotechnology which is commonly used in the United States can be quite controversial with Germans. It is not popular to discuss things which make people "uncomfortable", so there is no open discussion on benefits or drawbacks to genetically modified organisms, cloning, etc -- there is simply no discussion at all on these topics. The European Union tends to approach trade issues from a mindset of "social concerns".

There are, however, many nuances to European concerns over biotechnology. For example, in the EU, scientists are conducting research using biotechnology on crops -- but the EU will not allow these crops to be planted as part of commercial production. An entire generation of Germans has grown up simply accepting that "biotech is bad", without having any open discussion of the merits or the concerns. This restrictive view, combined with a shrinking German population, is impacting Germany's prominence as a trade partner with the United States. China is rapidly consuming resources -- both commodities & Foreign Ag Service man hours -- that the European Union once dominated.

Energy issues continue to dominate German trade concerns. 1/3 of the corn raised in Germany goes to biofuel production -- but this creates only 3% of the energy that Germans use! To obtain more organic materials for increased biofuel production, Germans are looking toward South American trade partners . . . countries such as Brazil that utilize GMOs aggressively. So there is the conundrum: in trying to encourage green fuels, Germans are raising corn for biofuel, but cannot get enough crop yield since they are banned from utilizing GMO crops, thus they buy product that must be shipped from far away -- which is a GMO product that they were seeking to prohibit in the first place!

Mr. Spencer shared with us that he observes that German farmers face many of the same challenges that American farmers do. Education of consumers is a challenge, just as it is in America. There is a popular chocolate sold in Germany called "Milka" -- one of my personal favorites! It has a purple wrapper and includes an image of a "Holstein" cow with purple spots. Milka has been so popular with German children for so long that their is now a misperception amongst these children that cows actually are purple & white!

As we departed the Embassy, Mr. Spencer accompanied us to retrieve our personal items. Bidding us farewell, he wished us a good trip and reminded us that if we were arrested, we would be visited by a representative of our Embassy . . . I'm not sure if this was reassuring or terrifying!

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