Austrian draft ban on transgenic organisms vetoed

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 2, 2003 (ENS): The European Commission has decided to reject a request from Austria to introduce national measures banning the use of genetically modified organisms in the region of Upper Austria for a three year period.

In a ruling today the European Union executive branch said Upper Austrian authorities had provided no new evidence that genetically modified plants and animals could endanger human health or the environment there.

The measures envisioned by the Upper Austrian regional government are presented as a means to protect organic and traditional agricultural production as well as plant and animal genetic resources from hybridization with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Upper Austria authorities consider that a general ban on genetically engineered seeds is justified given that the issue of coexistence between genetically modified and traditional methods of agricultural production is not fully resolved.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said, “We have analyzed the Austrian measures in great detail, and, legally speaking, this seems a clear-cut case. The Treaty requirements allowing for a derogation from EU legislation are not met and, in its role of guardian of the Treaty, the Commission can only reject the Austrian request."

"I have, of course, full respect for the concerns of the Austrian authorities for the protection of the environment and human health, " said Wallstrom, who explained that she has no problem recognizing that co-existence is "an important issue to be addressed."

But, she said, the concerns of the Upper Austrian authorities are "common concerns, shared by many regions across Europe, for which is it possible to find a viable response within the existing legal framework.”

On March 13, the government of Austria notified the European Commission that it had passed draft regional provisions "concerning the Upper Austrian Act on the prohibition of genetic engineering 2002."

Austria said the draft measures are supported by a study showing "new scientific evidence highlighting potential risks related to GMOs and specific to Upper Austria. Upper Austria therefore considers that a general ban on all GMOs (approved or not) is required in order to protect the environment and agriculture."

The European Food Safety Authority was consulted for scientific opinion as to whether the information provided by the Austrian authorities for the draft act contained new scientific evidence relating to the protection of the environment or the working environment as required by EU law.

The Food Safety Authority issued an opinion July 11, stating that, "The scientific information presented in the report provided no new data that would invalidate the provisions for the environmental risk assessment."

The scientific information presented in the report provided no new scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human health and the environment, that would justify a general prohibition of cultivation of genetically modified seeds and propagating material, the use of transgenic animals for breeding purposes and the release of transgenic animals, the Food Safety Authority declared.

The issue of coexistence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming was addressed by the European Commission in a recommendation on July 23. On GM free zones, the recommendation says that priority should be given to management measures applicable on the farm level and in close cooperation with neighboring farms depending on crop and product type.

Measures of a regional dimension could be considered if they are proportioned and if sufficient levels of purity cannot be achieved by other means, the Commission recommended.

A clause on coexistence will be included in the forthcoming EU law on genetically modified crops, and it will say that member states may take appropriate measures to avoid the unintended presence of genetically modified organisms in other products.


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