A temporary ban affecting commercial cultivation of GM crops was put in place by President Sarkozy last October as part of plans to make France greener. It prevented new crops being planted until a more permanent decision on the environmental policy is made. The ban is due to come to an end at the start of February, by which time a decision will be announced. The issue was discussed yesterday in the Senate. At a news conference Sarkozy announced he is prepared to resort to the safeguard clause if scientists raise serious doubts about GM crops. The panel is expected to release its verdict later this week, before the government will make a final decision on the issue. The only GM maize currently approved for cultivation in France is Monsanto's MON810, which was approved by the EU in 1998. The maize contains a gene that defends the crop against the European corn borer, an insect pest that eats the stem, present primarily in southern and middle Europe but moving northwards. Should the French decide to extend its GM ban, it will be following in the footsteps of Austria, which enforced a ban on the import and processing of MON810 and T25 maize in June 1999. Austria used the same EU measures to implement the ban, expressing concern about the effects on non-target organisms and the development of resistance to toxins by target organisms. The European Commission has been debating whether to force the country to lift its restrictions since 2005, as Austria has never produced the necessary scientific evidence to argue that GM crops do carry health risks. In November 2005, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ordered Austria's ban be lifted following a case brought by leading GMO producers Argentina, Canada and the US under claims that their farmers were losing millions of euros annually because of the EU. France could face similar condemnation for its actions from these countries, though the price to be paid for enforcing a ban is not yet known. The EU is due to decide on the situation in Austria by Friday January 11. At the same time however, a more permanent GM ban would be met with much celebration from environmental groups within France. The French anti-GM lobby is powerful. Farmer activist Jose Bove launched a hunger strike last week with 15 supporters, saying he would not eat again until the government imposes a year-long GM ban. Last year he was convicted of ripping up GM crops when he stormed Monsanto's facilities in southern France with up to 75 other protestors to campaign against the French import and distribution of GM maize seed. The cultivation of GM crops in Europe increased by 77 per cent in 2007, according to figures released by the biotech industry association EuropaBio. Over 110,000 hectares of biotech crops were harvested in seven EU member states, compared to 62,000 hectares in 2006. French GM crop cultivation experienced the greatest increase in Europe, quadrupling in size from 5,000 hectares in 1996 to over 21,000 hectares last year. Genetic research also continues to thrive in France with institutes such as CIRAD carrying out some of the most advanced biotech research in Europe. Research into genetic modification was not affected by Sarkozy's ban. One of the main concerns regarding GM crops is that pollination could cross-contaminate non-GM crops grown in the vicinity - and that ultimately the long-term health effects of GM on humans are not known.