EU Postpones End to Biotech Ban?Again
Canada and Argentina join the US in protesting the decision
BRUSSELS - 12/12/03 - For the second time in as many months, the European Union has postponed a decision to lift a four-year ban on bio-engineered crops.
The move came after EU ministers received a recommendation from a group of agricultural experts to allow the importation of Bt-11, a type of genetically modified (GM) sweet corn.
Under EU rules, the ministers will have three months in which to make a decision.
A spokesman for EU Health Commissioner David Byrne said the Standing Committee for the Food Chain, which is made up of scientific representatives from the bloc's 15 member states, failed to secure a required majority to act on the recommendation.?
"We've always realized that this is a difficult decision," said Beate Gminder. "It's a difficult situation for the member states, it's something that's difficult to explain to citizens and consumers."
The EU had already delayed the vote last month, after a number of EU countries sought "clarification" before taking the decision.
Six countries - Austria, Denmark, Greece, France, Luxembourg and Portugal with another six - the UK, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden - voting in favor of the postponement. Belgium, Germany and Italy abstained.?
The decision is likely to be put to the ministers in January. If they fail to agree on action within three months, the file returns to the Commission for a decision.
If the EU experts had agreed to allow Bt-11, it would effectively have lifted a de-facto moratorium in place since 1999 against the importation and cultivation of genetically-modified products in the EU.
The EU decision - silhouetted against a backdrop of public disquiet in Europe over the issue of so-called "Frankenfoods" - is being closely watched by Canada, Argentina, and, most notably, the US, which is home to the world's biggest biotech industry.
Those three countries have adamantly challenged the ban and have appealed to the World Trade Organization to have it overturned. Their argument hinges on the contention that the ban constitutes a trade barrier akin to the bloc's agricultural subsidy mechanism.
In the meantime, the European Commission has proposed approving an application by a Swiss firm, Syngenta Ltd., to import Bt-11 as part of a campaign to encourage development of a GM industry in Europe.
The company's hopes were raised recently when the EU's Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said another type of GM maize - NK 603 - produced by US-based Monsanto was entirely safe for human consumption.
Last month, the EU Health Commissioner Byrne appealed to the bloc's member states and the public in general to base their perception of food safety on science rather than fear.
"If we fail to make progress, there is a very real danger that an anti-science agenda may take root in European society leading to a society hampered and restricted by a collective neurosis," he said.?
The EU's moratorium was imposed in 1999 at the initiative of five countries - Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg - which were later joined by Austria and Belgium.
The bloc has made some progress on the issue, enacting two directives in October on labeling and tracing of genetically-modified agricultural products that Brussels said could smooth the way to lifting the ban.
But Washington has attacked the directives as protectionism in disguise, and the postponement will only keep one transatlantic trade row rumbling on just as the two sides try to move beyond the recently-ended dispute on US steel tariffs.
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