EU again rejects end to biotech ban

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- AFP, 12/08/03: The European Union postponed again a decision on lifting a four-year ban on bio-engineered crops which has angered the EU's trading partners, in particular the United States.

EU experts handed over to ministers a decision on allowing the import of import a type of a form of genetically modified (GM) sweetcorn, Bt-11. Under EU rules, ministers will have three months in which to make a decision.

EU health commissioner David Byrne's spokesman said the required majority was not secured on the standing committee for the food chain, which gathers scientific representatives from the 15 member states.

" We've always realized that this is a difficult decision," said spokesman Beate Gminder. "It's a difficult situation for the member states, it's something that's difficult to explain to citizens and consumers," she added.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth welcomed the decision.

" There is clearly no scientific consensus over the safety of this modified sweet corn. The decision not to approve it is a victory for public safety and common sense," said Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth Europe.

Six countries of the 15-member bloc -- Britain, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden -- voted in favour. Three countries abstained -- Belgium, Germany and Italy -- while six voted against: Austria, Denmark, Greece, France, Luxembourg and Portugal, she said.

The EU had already delayed the vote last month, after a number of EU countries sought "clarification" before taking the decision.

The decision is likely to be put to ministers in January, the European Commission, the EU's executive body, said. Chief spokesman Reijo Kempinnen noted that if ministers fail to agree on action within three months, the file returns to the Commission for a decision.

If the EU experts had agreed to allow Bt-11, it would effectively have lifted a de-facto moratorium in place since 1999 against the import and cultivation of GM products in the EU.

The EU decision -- against a backdrop of public disquiet in Europe on the issue of "Frankenfoods" -- is being closely watched by its trade partners, notably by the United States, which has the world's biggest biotech industry.

Along with Argentina and Canada, the United States has appealed to the World Trade Organisation to overturn the EU ban.

The European Commission has proposed approving Swiss firm Syngenta's application to import Bt-11 as part of a campaign to encourage the GM industry in Europe.

Syngenta's hopes were raised last week when the EU's Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said another type of GM maize made by US giant Monsanto, NK 603, was entirely safe for human consumption.

The EU health commissioner last week appealed to the member states and Europe's public to base their perception of food safety on science rather than fear.

" If we fail to make progress, there is a very real danger that an anti-science agenda may take root in European society leading to a society hampered and restricted by a collective neurosis," Byrne said last Thursday.

But opponents of GM crops say much more research needs to be done to gauge their impact on health and the environment.

The EU's moratorium was imposed in 1999 at the initiative of five countries -- Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg, which were later joined by Austria and Belgium.

The bloc has made some progress on the issue, enacting two directives in October on labelling and tracing of GM directives that the Commission said would open the way to lifting the ban.

But Washington has attacked the directives as protectionism in disguise, and a "no" vote on Monday will only keep one transatlantic trade row rumbling on just as the two sides bury a bitter dispute on US steel tariffs.