November 04, 2003
European Commission To Seek Approval on GM Corn From EU Member States
The European Commission is poised to seek approval from EU member states for a genetically modified (GM) variety of corn next month for import into the EU, partly as a means of showing that it is moving forward on lifting an informal moratorium on biotechnology that has sparked a U.S. challenge in the World Trade Organization. However this approval would avoid a fight with member states over whether to allow GM crops to be planted alongside non-GM crops.
The Commission would like to have a few GMOs approved in the coming months because of the U.S. WTO challenge filed last summer against the moratorium. Having several GMOs newly approved would show that the moratorium is no longer in place and would undercut the U.S. case, sources said.
"I think the only reason for doing it is they want to make a gesture to the U.S.," said one source from a non-governmental organization following the issue. But U.S. commodity groups are unlikely to be overly pleased with the initial approvals since they will not be for cultivation or planting.
The first GM product up for approval is expected to be BT11, a genetically modified sweet corn from the Swiss-based Syngenta, but the EU's technical Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health would consider only whether to approve BT11 for import and processing, not cultivation. If the committee does not offer its approval, which one NGO source predicted is likely given the political nature of the issue, the Agriculture Council representing member states would consider the proposal.
The Agriculture Council would have three months to consider the proposal. If it does not make a decision in three months, the Commission could take a decision, according to a Commission source. But if the Council decides by a qualified majority that it opposes the proposal, the Commission would be forced to reconsider its proposal.
Approving BT11 for import but not for cultivation would avoid criticism in the Agriculture Council from member states opposed to approving new genetically modified organisms for planting without first putting into place EU-wide regulations on the coexistence of GM crops alongside conventional or organic crops, according to Commission, member state and private-sector sources.
This could be important, as pressure is building up in some member states not to approve new GMOs without rules on coexistence due to domestic political pressures, according to Commission and member state sources. "Approvals for food are different from approvals for cultivation, which is much more controversial," one NGO source said. "It will be difficult for the Commission to get anything through that is to be cultivated."
One reflection of the keen interest in coexistence was a request from a regional government in Austria to introduce a ban on the use of GMOs in upper Austria, which was rejected by the Commission on the grounds that the ban was not based on scientific evidence. The regional government representing Upper Austria said a ban on GMO seed was necessary because the issue of the coexistence of genetically modified and non-genetically modified agriculture production had not been fully resolved.
It is unclear how many member states would actually oppose the approval of GMOs for cultivation without first putting into place coexistence rules if the Commission with this choice confronted them, sources said. The European Commission has threatened to take legal action through the European Court of Justice against member states that continue to block approval of GMOs after the traceability and labeling regulations take effect.
Austria proposed an EU-wide framework of rules for coexistence at a September 29 meeting of the Agriculture Council, and Italy, Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg have hinted at opposition to approving GMOs for cultivation in meetings of the Agriculture Council, but public and private-sector sources said it is unclear what position France or Germany would take. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden have previously expressed support for approving new GMOs, and were in favor of less stringent thresholds for labeling and traceability of GMOs than France, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, and Luxembourg during a debate.
Other GMOs in the pipeline for immediate approval are also likely to be approved, if at all, only for import and processing, these sources said. For example, approval for import of a GM corn from Monsanto called GA21 is likely to be considered in January, according to a Commission source.
A Commission source said proposals on these GMO approvals would likely specify that their authorization would take place in April, when the labeling and traceability regulations go into effect for food and feed. But this source acknowledged that this means approved GMOs could not actually by imported until April.
The U.S. does not appear to be aggressively pushing the WTO case against the moratorium in any event, probably because of ongoing disputes in the WTO with the EU over steel tariffs and the foreign sales corporation tax scheme, according to sources in the Commission and the U.S. private sector. The EU has prepared retaliation against both the U.S. steel tariffs and the tax system, which could go into effect in November and in March 2004, respectively.
"We've looking at two train wrecks, one on steel and one on FSC," said the U.S. private sector source. "It's not a good time for us to be nasty to the Community."
Although the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body established a panel on the U.S. challenge against the EU biotech ban on August 29, panelists have not yet been appointed to hear the dispute. However, WTO rules allow either party to request that the WTO Director General, in consultation with the Chairman of the DSB and any other relevant standing committees, appoint panelists 20 days after the establishment of a panel.
A EU source noted that the U.S. had so far not exercised this right, which could suggest an interest in keeping the GMO moratorium case at a low profile.
Member states and the European Commission agreed last summer to new regulations on labeling and traceability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which was meant to clear the way for member states to allow approvals of future GMO products for entry to the EU market. In exchange for agreeing to certain thresholds for labeling requirements of GMO shipments, the Commission agreed to allow member states to impose their own measures on handling issues related to coexistence.
But few member states to this point have passed national legislation regarding coexistence regulations, according to Commission and member state sources. One NGO source said it could be two years before all member states have national coexistence regulations in place.