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Battle Over GMOs Heats Up in Europe

Not just a spud, this is likely to prove a very hot political potato indeed. It is living, knobbly proof of the determination of Brussels bureaucrats to spread GM crops throughout Europe, against the will of most of its people.

In a little-noticed move last week, the European Commission defied most of the governments to which it is supposed to answer to give the green light to growing a modified potato across the continent. It was the first time a GM crop had been authorised for cultivation in 13 years. But, now the long moratorium has been broken, similar approvals for others are expected rapidly to follow.

The decision has its origins in a couple of secret, top-level meetings called by Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission's strongly pro-GM president. He invited the prime ministers of each of the 27 EU member states to send a personal representative along to discuss how to "speed up" the spread of the technology and "deal with" public opposition.

You can see why he was frustrated. Only one GM crop - a maize produced by Monsanto - had ever been cleared for growing in Europe, and that was way back in 1998. Other applications, including the GM potato, had failed to get through the Council of Ministers, representing the EU governments. No surprise there: about three times as many Europeans oppose genetic modification as support it.

As a result, GM crops cover only about 0.12 per cent of Europe's agricultural land, mainly in Spain - and the continent accounts for just 0.08 per cent of the area growing them worldwide. And they have been losing ground. In the past two years, both France and Germany banned the Monsanto maize, joining Austria, Hungary, Greece and Luxembourg.

The meetings' confidential minutes show that Barroso was trying to get the prime ministers to over-rule their own agriculture and environment ministers, and "look at the wider picture". And the leaders' emissaries duly called for "the speeding up of the authorisation process, based on robust assessments so as to reassure the public".

But little changed: the Commission tried to force countries to lift their bans on growing the Monsanto maize, but again failed at the Council of Ministers. So it undemocratically took matters into its own hands to launch the GM potato. Called Amflora - developed by BASF to produce starch for paper, textiles and glue - the potato has twice been to the Council for approval, in December 2006 and August 2007. Each time, as in almost all GM applications, the ministers were split between pro and anti-GM countries, and the Commission could not get the qualified majority it needed. So, last week it cynically approved the spud for cultivation - using a provision that allows it, when ministers are deadlocked, to decide over their heads.

The provision - which the Commission has already used to approve the consumption of GM crops grown outside Europe, mainly for animal feed - is deeply controversial. Five years ago, it was condemned by Markos Kyprianou, the then health and consumer protection commissioner, and by the top EC official in charge of pesticides and biotechnology. But it was retained at the insistence of the then trade commissioner, our own Lord Mandelson.

Now, instead of scrapping it, the new Commission, which took office earlier this year, has decided to extend it. Three modified maizes are expected to be authorised over the next weeks, and 14 other crops are lining up behind them. GM advocates are hailing "a new dawn". 
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