November 26, 2003



Europe Struggles To Reach Common Ground On GM Crops

Europe struggled to reach common ground on genetically modified (GM) crops Tuesday, with Britain's top adviser unable to provide clear guidelines for their use in the U.K. while an upcoming EU vote to lift a five-year ban on biotech products is too close to call.


The continuing debate over the planting of GM crops, and their use in food products, has sparked a long-running debate between Europe, where there is strong resistance to their use, and the United States, which has invested huge effort and money in developing them.


In a keenly-awaited report, the UK's Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) called for strict rules governing the sowing of GM crops, but without clear proposals it makes a vital government decision next year much more difficult.


The report was due to have been published earlier this year, but its release was pushed back because scientists could not agree on a threshold limit for their use in food. This will be crucial if the government is to spell out how GM and non-GM crops can co-exist and still leave consumers with a choice of what to buy.


The AEBC said its members could not agree whether the acceptable limit of GM material in food should be set at 0.1%, as demanded by Britain's increasingly influential organic food lobby, or 0.9% as suggested by the biotechnology industry and the EU Commission.


"There is a fear that setting a threshold of 0.1% seriously threatens progress in developing this and possibly other new technologies in farming which promise consumer, environmental and other benefits," the report said.




The Royal Society called for a more wide-ranging debate on the future of farming in the UK, without focusing too much on GM crops.


Society president Lord May of Oxford said recent studies of the effects of GM crops on the environment reflected it was not GM crops but the weed management system associated with them that determined the effect on biodiversity.


Scientists last month ruled after trials that some GM crops like rapeseed and sugar beet were more harmful to wildlife than those grown conventionally, further fueling demands for the government to keep them from being grown commercially.


UK ministers are under pressure to agree a UK regulatory regime for GM crops because the EU is poised to lift its five-year moratorium on the crops, a move which could pave the way for possible cultivation.




Next month, EU countries will have another try at lifting the ban on new biotech crops, renewing the debate on a type of sweetcorn that may unlock the transatlantic trade row.


The European Commission will put the issue to a vote in two weeks, hoping to win its long-awaited showdown against a small but powerful group of GM-skeptic states.


The outcome could either be a spectacular backfire for the Commission, leaving the stalemate to be resolved by EU ministers, or could end an unofficial ban that sparked international action against the EU by Argentina, Canada and the United States. The EU last authorized a new GM food product in April 1998.


This month, an informal show of hands at one of the bloc's myriad specialist committees showed the Commission it did not yet have enough support to back its recommended approval for Bt-11 sweetcorn. The same committee meets again on December 8.


"It depends how serious they (skeptic states) are about rejecting it, when push comes to shove. But one thing is clear, that there will be a vote in December," one EU diplomat said.


If there is no clear momentum either way after the vote is taken, the matter goes to EU agriculture ministers -- raising the political stakes. If ministers cannot decide after three months, the Commission can rubberstamp its own recommendation.


Even if the EU lifts its ban, Europe's farmers will have a long time to wait before getting a green light to plant biotech crops -- the acid test of whether the EU moratorium is really over.