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Labelling laws leave EU in GMO quandary


Europe's attempts to solve a transatlantic row over geneticallymodified organisms (GMOs) by tough food labelling rules have yet tobear fruit, leaving the 15-nation bloc vulnerable to legalchallenge, officials say.

With policy makers acutely aware of balancing public concernsover new varieties of gene-spliced crops with their potentialbenefits, the European Commission plans compulsory labels for allfood products made from them. But public opinion in Europe, bruised by the mad cow and dioxinscandals, has proved sceptical to GMOs, often characterised in thepress as "Frankenstein foods".

The strict measures have raised problems with U.S. farmers andexporters, who believe them to be unworkable. But they may be ableto live with them if -- as the Commission wants -- they lead to theswift lifting of a three-year-old de facto ban on approvals of newGM varieties in Europe. Under new traceability proposals, any food product derived from aGM crop must be labelled as such, even if the genetic material isremoved during the manufacturing process -- as is the case withsome vegetable oils. The laws will require manufacturers to provide certificates of GMcontent at each stage of the production process, an obligation thatU.S. farmers say will add to costs and be an administrative burdenopen to mistakes and fraud. They would prefer a system based on the testing for GM content ofthe final product placed on the market.


The Commission has been forced to take a tough line to appease ahard core of six EU countries, led by France, which have said theywould not authorise any new GM crops until the laws were in place.Atotal of 13 GM varieties have been in regulatory limbo since 1998,leaving companies like Monsanto and Novartis waiting for years toknow whether their new strains of modified maize, soy and cottoncan be sold in the EU.

Commission president Romano Prodi has raised fears that Europecould suffer economically by falling behind in the biotech race andthat the anti-GM lobby has been given too free a hand in shapingconsumer opinion.

EU food safety Commissioner David Byrne has said more must bedone to explain the issues to the public. "Very often the debate on GMOs has generated more heat than light.We must ensure, as political leaders, that unbiased facts onbiotechnology are placed before our citizens to see andunderstand," he said in a recent speech.

The Commission has now proposed that approvals restartimmediately, even though the new labelling laws have not yet beenadopted -- a process that could take another two years. It suggested last month that the EU should license new GMOs as longas their makers agreed to be bound by the new rules. Europe's biotech industry said it welcomed the Commission's effortsto bring the de facto moratorium to a swift end.

"We especially applaud the efforts and leadership of theEuropean Commission in ensuring that the regulatory process on GMplants comes back on track," said Hugo Schepens, Secretary Generalof the industry lobby EuropaBio. "We are keen to ensure that the labelling and traceability lawsmeet member state requirements and consumer demands whilerecognising the realities of agricultural production."

"With the proven health and environmental safety track record ofsuch crops, the continuation of the de facto moratorium isindefensible," Schepens added.


However, it appears that the hard core of member states aresticking to their guns, and demanding the legislation be fully inplace on the statute books before any new approvals could bemade.At a meeting of EU environment ministers in Luxembourg lastmonth, only Spain, the Netherlands and Britain showed anywillingness to accept the Commission's idea.

"It isn't possible to start discussing a possible end to themoratorium as long as there is no operational system ontraceability and labelling, and that is some way off," the FrenchEnvironment Minister Yves Cochet told the meeting.

Some countries, such as France and Luxembourg, are also hintingthey may insist on additional laws covering the environmentalliability of GMOs -- leading to extra delays.

This has left the Commission with a dilemma, as it believes theblocking of new GM strains, which have been scientifically tested,cannot be justified under international law.

It fears a legal suit from the biotech firms which, it believes,could force it to overrule national governments and approve the GMcrops for use anywhere in the EU.

"This is problematic and I don't know how to solve it," EUEnvironment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom told the ministers. "Weare in an illegal situation."Wallstrom also said the EU may be opento a complaint from the United States at the World TradeOrganisation (WTO).

And with biotech giant Monsanto planning to commercialise thefirst ever genetically modified wheat in 2003, the pressure on EUgovernments to resolve the issue can only increase.

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