EU environment ministers let five states keep GM crop bans

LUXEMBURG, June 27, 2005 (ENS): The environment ministers of five European countries are standing firm on their rejection of genetically modified crops. They have turned down a package of proposals by the European Commission to lift their bans on transgenic varieties of maize and oilseed rape that are authorized across the European Union.

At a European Environment Council meeting Friday, the ministers of Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg won a majority of their counterparts over to their view that several varieties of genetically modified maize, or corn, and oilseed rape, or canola, present risks to human health and the environment.

This is the first time that the Environment Council found a qualified majority against a Commission proposal on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, "The Commission has a legal obligation to make sure that the existing regulatory framework governing the release of GMOs is correctly applied by member states. That is why we proposed to lift the current bans or restrictions on certain GMOs in Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxemburg."

Some of these eight national safeguard measures include bans or restrictions on cultivation, while others include bans on import and use in food and feed.

"The fact that the Council rejected all eight proposals raises a host of questions," Dimas said. "What is certain is that today’s vote sends a political signal that member states may want to revisit some aspects of the existing system."

Attempts by the European Commission to overturn the bans follow a dispute over GM foods at the World Trade Organization, where the United States claims they are a barrier to trade.

Now the Commission "will have to carefully consider the legal and scientific bases that underpin any further proposals, as well as the implications for EU internal market and trading partners," Dimas said.

Environmentalists were pleased with the Environment Council vote. Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Emily Diamand said, "Today's vote to allow EU countries to maintain their bans on GM food and crops, is a vote for common sense, and a victory for European consumers, who are overwhelmingly opposed to GM food."

But the environmental group criticized the UK government for again siding with the GM industry, and voting to have the bans overturned. "It is bad enough that Elliot Morley should ignore public opinion on this important issue. But it is outrageous that he should try and stop other countries saying no to GM," said Diamand. "His actions will do nothing to improve the UK's battered reputation on this issue, or help its poor image in Europe."

The proposals to lift the national safeguard measures concern authorized genetically modified organisms from several manufacturers.

Aventis T25 maize, tolerant to glufosinate-ammonium, has been banned in Austria. Also called Chardon LL, it is the active ingredient in Liberty®. It was approved in 1998 for all uses - cultivation, food and feed, processing.

Austria has expressed the concern about the risk of out-crossing with wild relatives and conventional crops as well as in sensitive areas, and worries that no monitoring is conducted.

Austria supplied additional information about its allergenic and toxicological risk assessment of T25 to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in response to a request from the Commission. But in its opinion of July 2004, the EFSA concluded, as it has for all previous arguments and information, that Austria's additional information did not invalidate the original risk assessment for T25.

Monsanto's product MON810, known commercially as YieldGard corn, is also banned in Austria. The maize, expressing the Bt cryIA(b) gene, is engineered to repel three corn borers. It was approved in 1998 for all uses.

Austria is concerned about the effects of the Bt toxins on non-target organisms and development of resistance to toxins by target organisms. Austrial presented additional information about MON810 to the food safety authority, citing the potential environmental impact of Bt toxin and allergenic and toxicological risk assessments. But this information did not change the authority's original risk assessment carried out as part of the authorization process..

Syngenta GM maize, Bt176 has been banned in Austria, Germany and Luxemburg. This Bt-maize is engineered to include genes that confer tolerance to glufosinate ammonium. In 1997, the EU approved it for all uses - cultivation, food and feed, processing.

The three countries are concerned about the effects of Bt toxins on non-target organisms and development of resistance to toxins by target organisms. They are also worried about risks associated with the development of resistance to ampicillin antibiotic.

The oilseed rape varieties MS1xRF1 banned in France were approved by the European Union in 1996. This Swede rape, or canola, is resistant to the herbicide glufosinate MS1/RF1.

France claims the GM plants have negative effects on human health, the environment and agriculture and raises concerns about gene drift, gene flow and the accumulation of resistance genes.

Topas 19/2 made by Bayer CropScience is banned in France and Greece. This Swede rape, or canola, is tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate was approved in 1998 for import, storage and processing, but not cultivation.

France and Greece raise issues concerning dissemination, persistence, volunteers and gene flow in the environment arising from spillage or unintended release.

Greece filed additional information with the food safety authority concerning environmental risks, consumer protection and co-existence of Topas 19/2. Greece is especially concerned about the plants out-crossing with their wild relatives, which are consumed by humans in Greece, as well as the enhanced capability of the rape and its wild relatives and hybrids to survive and spread. Greece also cites the potential for multi-resistant wild plants and weeds.

In a separate proposal involving the authorization of placing Monsanto's MON863 maize, with resistance to corn rootworm, on the European market for import, processing and feed use, the Council did not find the required qualified majority for or against. This case will now go back to the Commission for a final decision.

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