EU approves biotech seed for planting; labeling issue side-lined

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 9, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Jeremy Smith, Reuters, 09/08/04: The European Union approved on Wednesday the first biotech seeds for planting and sale across EU territory, flying in the face of widespread consumer resistance to genetically modified (GMO) crops and foods.

The European Commission also dropped a proposal on how much GMO material may be tolerated without labeling in batches of conventional seed -- a controversial law that has bounced between the Commission's various departments for over a year.

It authorized 17 different seed strains of maize engineered by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto from a parent crop that won approval for growing just before the EU began its biotech ban in 1998 that lasted nearly six years.

Before Wednesday's decision, the GMO seeds only had national authorizations issued by France and Spain. The EU's ban meant that only farmers in those countries could buy and plant them.

"The maize has been thoroughly assessed to be safe for human health and environment," Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said in a statement.

"It has been grown in Spain for years without any known problems," he said, adding that it would be clearly labeled as GMO maize to give farmers a choice.

Under an established legal procedure, once an EU state gives the green light for a seed to be sold on its territory -- and assuming all EU legislation is complied with -- the Commission is obliged to extend that authorization to an EU-wide basis.

The 17 seeds will now be entered into what is called the Common Catalogue, the EU's overall seed directory that includes all national seed catalogues. The parent maize seed, known as MON 810, has been engineered to resist certain insects.

Greens angry

The move angered greens, who say it is irresponsible to allow the widespread use of GMO seeds while many EU countries have no laws on how farmers should separate organic, GMO and conventional crops to minimize cross-contamination.

So far, the Commission has insisted that EU states should be responsible for how their farmers segregate the three farming types: an issue known in EU jargon as coexistence.

Environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth (FoE) described the decision as "a recipe for disaster", saying it would cause widespread contamination of Europe's food, farming and environment and remove consumers' ability to avoid GMOs.

Polls show that more than 70 percent of European consumers oppose biotech foods because of health and environment worries.

"European member states must step in where the Commission has failed and ban these GM seeds," said FoE's GMO campaigner Geert Ritsema in a statement.

"And without coexistence rules, the widespread contamination of conventional crops is highly likely, posing a massive threat to Europe's food, farming and environment," he said.

Seed purity problem

The Commission said it had failed to reach consensus on the purity of seed batches containing GMOs and it would probably be the next executive taking office in November that would decide.

Spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said there were divisions within the 25-member college over thresholds -- the proposal would have allowed maize and rapeseed, the only two GMO crops authorized, to contain 0.3 percent GMOs before being labeled as biotech.

"It's not very likely that this Commission will have time to return to this issue," he told a news briefing.

Green groups, who say thresholds should be set at the lowest technically feasible level of 0.1 percent, welcomed the delay.

"It is a very good thing that the Commission acknowledged that their proposal was not well thought through," Greenpeace GMO adviser Eric Gall said in a statement.

The seed proposal is widely seen as the last piece in the EU's complex jigsaw of GMO laws. The aim is to kickstart more approvals of live GMO crops after the bloc allowed imports of a GMO maize in May: the formal end of the biotech ban.