EU paves the way for modified corn

Posted in Europe | 09-Sep-04 | Author: Paul Meller| Source: International Herald Tribune

A French farmer digs his land unintentionally planted with genetically-modified oilseed rape near Parois, eastern France.
But panel balks on disclosure rules

BRUSSELS European consumers fearful of genetically modified foods sneaking onto their breakfast tables can rest a little easier after the European Commission on Wednesday backed away from a plan to permit small quantities of laboratory-altered organisms into the food chain undetected.

However, a separate decision on Wednesday to include genetically modified corn in a Europe-wide catalog of seeds for the first time could speed up the spread of such foods around the Union.

The commission had been widely expected to approve the new rule that would have allowed a batch of 1,000 conventional seeds containing three or fewer genetically modified seeds to be sold without informing food manufacturers or consumers of the presence of genetically modified organisms.

However, 10 of the 25 commissioners, including the commission president Romano Prodi, opposed the move at a meeting in Brussels. Five others were undecided.

The lack of a decision, which was to form the last important plank in the Union's new rules on GMOs, means the issue will be passed on to the new commission headed by the former Portuguese prime minister Jose Manuel Barosso, which takes office in November.

"The failure to decide after three years of preparation is good news for those people opposed to GM foods," said Adrian Bebb with the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth Europe, which campaigns against genetically modified foods.

The decision to leave any ruling to the incoming commission "is a golden opportunity for a new commission to get into line with public opinion, which is distrustful of GM food," Bebb said.

Bebb said he hopes to have an ally in the incoming agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel from Denmark.

"Denmark has set a 0.1 percent traceability limit and Ms. Boel was involved in that decision," he said.

Lobbyists on behalf of the GM industry were disappointed by the commission's failure to make a decision.

"It is regrettable that, once again, the commission has chosen to ignore its responsibility to establish a common European legal basis for the setting of thresholds for trace levels of GM seed in conventional seed," said Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit of pro-GM lobby group EuropaBio.

However, in a separate decision on Wednesday the European Commission agreed to add 17 varieties of a strain of corn developed by the biotechnology firm Monsanto to a Europe-wide catalogue of seeds, the first addition of GM seeds to the 30,000-strong catalogue.

Six varieties of Monsanto's MON 810 corn are already listed in French Agriculture Ministry catalogues. However, none of them are being grown in France at present, according to Friends of the Earth. The remaining 11 varieties are registered for use in Spain, but it is not clear whether they are being there grown or not, Bebb said.

"This decision will make it possible for these varieties of GM corn to spread across the Union, but it is unlikely to happen immediately," said a commission spokeswoman, Beate Gminder.

Bebb said the decision to list the 17 varieties in the common European catalogue of varieties of agricultural plant species is unwise because most member states in Union have yet to pass rules on how GM crops and conventional crops should co-exist.

Denmark is the only country to have passed such a law. Germany is debating one, but other countries have yet to even begin drafting such rules.

"Why couldn't the commission wait until such legislation is in place? The chances of conventional crops being contaminated by pollen from fields of GM crops is much higher now, " Bebb said.

The decision to add Monsanto's corn varieties, which offer better resistance to pests and diseases than conventional corn, proves that the commission is "out of step with national governments and consumers around Europe," he said.

The commission lifted a six-year-long moratorium on the on imports of GM foods into the Union in April, after its scientists concluded that they do not pose a threat to human health, and after the Union passed strict laws ensuring that food containing GMOs is clearly labeled as such.

Since then several different GM products have been approved for import into the Union, but in each case national governments have balked at approving the products themselves due to fears of losing voter support, leaving the final decision each time to the commission.

The U.S. government has complained to the World Trade Organization in Geneva about the moratorium, arguing that it is a protectionist measure that harms American farmers who export genetically modified foods.

Washington officials argue that Europe's excessively cautious approach to GM foods has cost American farmers dearly. U.S. corn exports to Europe have plummeted from 3.3 million tons in 1995 to just 25,000 tons in 2002, costing American farmers an estimated $300 million annually in lost sales.

Gminder denied that the commission is out of touch with consumers and national governments. "We don't make populist decisions. If there is no danger from GMOs then we allow them," she said.