Battle fields

 

The European Union toughens rules on genetically modified products, removing a significant obstacle to their use

 

The European Union is about to adopt new rules for the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. The move, on Thursday, will end a three-year moratorium on the commercial use of GMOs.

 Six EU countries are threatening to block any releases under the new directive, but they may have to back down. GMOs, for experiment or sale, have been governed in the EU by a 1990 directive that called for risk assessments and consultation. But after a public outcry over GM crops, the European Commission accepted a moratorium on releases in 1998, and proposed a tougher directive.

 The European Parliament demanded even stronger rules, and finally approved a compromise in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

 "We now have the toughest GMO laws in the world," said David Bowe, British Labour MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, who helped negotiate the compromise.

EuropaBio, the European association of biotech companies, welcomed the vote, saying the directive would "convince investors that there is a future for agro-food biotechnology in Europe."

"Even we admit it is an improvement," said Lorenzo Consoli, of the environmental group Greenpeace.

Public registers

Ordinarily the directive would not take effect for two years, but in the meantime the Commission is not expected to approve any releases that do not conform to it, says Bowe. Existing applications for field trials of GM crops will have to be re-assessed.

 Unlike the old directive, the new one requires public consultations on releases, and public registers of where GM crops are planted. Antibiotic resistance genes, used as markers for GMOs during development, must be dropped from commercial products by 2004, and from experimental GMOs by 2008, due to fears that the genes could spread.

 The directive requires more stringent risk assessments before GMOs are released and close monitoring afterwards. Both assessment and monitoring will consider a wider range of risks, including the potential for gene transfer to other organisms, a requirement opposed by the industry. GMOs will be licensed for ten years, then re-assessed depending on monitoring results.

Traceability and labelling

The directive is expected to be approved by member states at a Council of Ministers meeting on Thursday, with France and Italy abstaining.

Those two, plus Denmark, Luxembourg, Greece and Austria, stated on Wednesday that they would block any approvals of GMOs under the directive until another regulation on the traceability of GMOs through the food chain, and labelling of products containing them, is adopted by the Commission.

That could be in April. "They'll have to think of a new excuse then," says Bowe. Public opposition to GMOs is strong in all six countries.

 

Correspondence about this story should be directed to latestnews@newscientist.com

1458 GMT, 14 February 2001

Debora MacKenzie, Brussels

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