EU faces busy GMO timetable but no end to deadlock (17/8/2005)

EU faces busy GMO timetable but no end to deadlock
By Jeremy Smith
Wed Aug 17, 2005

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU governments face a slew of decisions in the next few months on whether to allow more imports of genetically modified (GMO) foods but nothing is expected that might break Europe's deadlock over biotechnology.

With EU institutions mostly closed in August, ministers and national experts will be asked to process a backlog of applications for new GMO approvals in four crammed months.

That doesn't necessarily mean they will be able to agree.

In fact, although the EU ended its six-year unofficial biotech ban in May 2004, the last time national governments could agree on authorising a new GMO product was back in 1998.

Since then, many meetings end in deadlock as "pro" and "anti" camps balance each other out and more and more countries sit on the fence, undecided on the benefits of biotech foods.

Three new GMO approvals have been issued since the ban ended, all by a European Commission rubberstamp -- a default process that kicks in when EU states repeatedly fail to agree.

Agriculture ministers will resume their monthly meetings from September, when they should discuss whether Greece should lift its ban on 17 types of a Monsanto GMO maize seed.

The pace may quicken in October as the Commission is keen to present several more GMOs for approval by the end of the year.

"October looks like it's going to be busier than September," one EU diplomat said. The month will probably start with a meeting of EU food safety experts, who will debate a similar GMO seed ban imposed by Poland and possibly another by Hungary.

October's ministerial meeting may also see voting on two Monsanto maize types: GA21, for use as a food processing ingredient, and MON 863, for use in food. Environment ministers may also debate another GMO maize approval that month.

And that's not all. The whole atmosphere on biotechnology could change in Brussels in early October due to the World Trade Organization's expected ruling on a case brought against EU biotech policy by the United States, Canada and Argentina.


EU countries have ended meetings in deadlock 14 times in a row, either as ministers or national experts, on approving new GMOs usually for use in industrial processing or as animal feed. Consumer opinion has been overwhelmingly opposed to GMO foods.

Under the EU's complex weighted voting system, the EU-25 must achieve a majority to approve a new product or reject it.

If there is deadlock at national experts level, the dossier escalates to ministers -- and if they fail to agree after three months, the Commission may issue a default approval.

"It looks like it's going to be busy but the result will be the same. There will be no opinion," a Commission official said.

But the most controversial area is yet to come. So far, the Commission has shied away from asking member states to allow imports of more GMO crops for growing in Europe's fields.

Around six "live" GMOs are waiting for approval -- maize and rapeseed types, and a starch potato -- but no dates have been set for any meeting.

Diplomats say the Commission will probably not want to submit any of these to a vote before its agriculture department finishes a report on how EU states are dealing with coexistence -- or how farmers separate conventional, organic and GMO crops.

Fewer than half of EU states have proper coexistence laws despite reminders from the Commission to use its guidelines on separation distances and natural crop buffers like hedgerows.

The Commission's report is not expected until at the end of the year or, more likely, in early 2006.

In theory, it would provide the basis for a framework EU law on coexistence for governments to enact national laws on crop separation. But the Commission has been increasingly lukewarm in recent months on whether such a law will be drafted at all.

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