EU Bureaucrats, Under US Pressure, May Lift GE Ban
EU moves to break gene crop deadlock

BRUSSELS, July 13 (Reuters) - The European Commission said on Thursday
its current moratorium on new genetically modified (GM) crops was
illegal and proposed kick-starting its stalled approval process.
The Commission plans to apply tough new rules governing the labelling
and traceability of GM crops as soon as they are agreed by EU
governments and the European Parliament but before they legally enter
into force.

This could be as soon as the end of the year, and would avoid waiting
for the legislation to be transposed into national laws, a process that
can take a further two years.

The EU's authorisation process for GM crops has been in deadlock since
mid-1998, when environment ministers imposed a de facto moratorium on
new approvals until new laws were drafted.

"We have already waited too long to act. The moratorium is illegal and
not justified," European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom told
a news conference.

"The value of biotechnology is poorly appreciated in Europe and there's
a risk the biotechnology industry will not develop."

The environment ministers' decision -- more tacit agreement than
legislative change -- had created legal uncertainty because existing
laws requiring the EU to examine applications to clear GM crops remained
on the statute books.

Wallstrom said this had left the Commission open to a challenge from
companies concerned at the European Court of Justice.

Since 1992 some 18 GM products, including crops, vaccines and flowers,
have been approved for commercial use in the EU. There are 14
applications pending under the old legislation but none have been
authorised since 1998.


The blockage has particularly angered the United States, the world's
major GM crop grower, as well as the biotech industry, which have both
accused the EU of foot-dragging.

Washington regards the biotechnology issue as a major transatlantic
trade dispute, outweighing even the other rows it has with Brussels over
bananas and hormone-treated beef.

This latest move to "fast-track" the legislative process was rounded on
by environmental groups, which accused the Commission of caving in to
U.S. trade pressure.

"The Commission is bowing to U.S. threats with a proposal which flies in
the face of current consumer and member state concern over the
regulation of GM crops," Greenpeace spokeswoman Isabelle Meister said.

Public confidence in genetically-altered crops was further dented by the
recent discovery of unapproved strains being grown unknowingly in
several EU countries.

EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne defended the new approach,
describing it as balanced and allowing consumers to make an informed
choice regarding GM products.

"The public needs to be assured of the highest protection of public
health, and of the environment, including the protection of
biodiversity," he said.

Under the proposal, companies seeking approval for new GM crops will
have to present voluntary commitments in line with the new requirements
on labelling and traceability. These would become legally binding once
authorisation was granted.

The Commission said it would present the new labelling and traceability
provisions in the autumn.

The "fast-track" proposal will now be presented to EU governments for
approval and Wallstrom said environment ministers would discuss the
issue at a meeting in Paris this weekend under the French EU presidency.

But some EU members are concerned about more than just labelling and

French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet said last month she wanted
the EU to continue blocking GM approvals until strict rules came into
effect on making biotech companies legally liable for any future
environment or health problems.

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