Austria: Petition urges genetic food ban

TUESDAY APRIL 15 1997

By Eric Frey in Vienna

The Austrian government is under fierce pressure to stiffen its opposition to European Union guidelines on genetically modified food products after a national petition attracted 1.3m signatures, or 20 per cent of the eligible voters.

The petition - which was begun by two environmental organisations - calls for a total ban on genetically modified agricultural products and experiments with genetically modified plants outside the laboratory, and a prohibition for patents on genetically modified animals or plans.

It only has to be debated by parliament and need not be turned into law but the exceptional turnout, one of the highest ever for a petition drive, is certain to increase the pressure on the government to toughen its regulations.

The petition campaign received strong support from several political parties and the "Kronen-Zeitung", the largest tabloid paper. And Chancellor Viktor Klima said at a Social Democrat party congress last week that his government would take the demands of the petition very seriously. This could put Austria in conflict with the European Commission, which wants to liberalise the production and sale of genetically modified food products.

To accommodate the public mood, Austria has already pushed for stricter regulations in the EU institutions.

In February, the government imposed a unilateral ban on a genetically modified corn by Novartis, the first agricultural product registered in the EU. Officials in Brussels say the ban must be lifted after three months unless Austria can present convincing evidence that the Novartis corn is a health hazard.

Environmental issues are extremely popular in Austria, which banned atomic energy in the late 1970s and has been in the forefront of environmental regulation in Europe. No other EU country has such a high market share for organic food products, and surveys show around 80 per cent opposition to any kind of genetically modified goods.

Last month, two retail chains went so far as to publicly destroy Toblerone chocolate bars when it became known that Swiss producer Jacobs-Suchard had used an ingredient that included some genetically modified soy substance.

The petition could drive a wedge in the uneasy governing coalition between the Social Democratic and the conservative People's party. The People's party rejects the demands because industry representatives and scientists warn that Austria will become less attractive as a business and science location and miss out in one of the main growth industries. However, the Social Democrats are increasingly tilting towards the petition camp amid pressure from their members. Copyright the Financial Times Limited 1997


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