Jun 24, 2005

Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer: EU ministers uphold sovereign right to ban GMOs

EU environment ministers dealt a blow on Friday to efforts to get more GMO crops grown in Europe as they agreed to uphold eight national bans on genetically modified maize and rapeseed types. The vote was a sharp rebuff for the European Union's executive Commission, which had wanted the ministers to endorse an order to lift the bans within 20 days. EU law provides for national GMO bans if the government can justify the prohibition.

It was also the EU's first agreement on GMO policy since 1998, when the bloc began its unofficial moratorium on approving new GMO foods and crops -- lifted last year by a legal default. "A very large majority, 22 member states, rejected proposals to lift these national bans. We were able to give a clear message to the European Commission," Luxembourg Environment Minister Lucien Lux told a news conference.

The ministers' decision plays into the hands of the United States, Canada and Argentina, whose suit against the European Union at the World Trade Organisation alleges that EU biotech policy harms trade and is not founded on science. The EU's 1998-2004 biotech ban, they say, was illegal. The WTO is now expected to issue its initial ruling on the GMO case in early October, postponed from August, officials say.

Between 1997 and 2000, Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg banned specific GMOs on their territory, focusing on three maize and two rapeseed types approved shortly before the start of the EU moratorium.

For the Commission, the votes were a setback, especially in its WTO defence, but it was still "business as usual". The EU executive now has several options, including returning to the ministers with the same proposals for lifting the bans, though at a later date, or changing them radically.

"The EU is under considerable pressure at the WTO, and not only due to the lack of action (on national GMO bans) in previous years. And further delays would weaken our position at the WTO," EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said. "This does not call our regulatory framework into question...(which) is the strictest in the world. We are going to apply the existing framework and we are obliged to do so."

Spain was the only country to uphold all eight bans, despite the fact that its farmers grow one of the maize types, the Bt-176 strain made by Swiss biotech giant Syngenta (SYNN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research). Spain is one of the few countries that grows GMO crops extensively in Europe, where much of the public view them as "Frankenstein" foods despite industry assurances they are safe.
Green groups were ecstatic that the EU had finally agreed to slap down not just one of the national bans, but all eight.

"The European Commission asked for more guidance from the member states and they got it," said Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner at environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth Europe. "Countries today have demanded the sovereign right to ban genetically modified crops if there are questions over their safety," he said in a statement.

Apart from the Bt-176 strain, the other maize types in the national bans are MON 810, made by U.S. agrochemicals giant Monsanto, and Bayer's T25 maize. There are also two rapeseed types, both made by Bayer.

But Europe's biotech industry was incensed by the decisions. "This is the unacceptable and hypocritical face of EU politics," said one Brussels-based biotech industry source. "Some member states continue to show their disregard for laws which they themselves put in place while on the other hand they call for support of the EU legislative system."