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EU not budging on biotech

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, Oct. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- The U.S.-backed agribusiness and biotechnology industry needn't hold its breath about feeding gene-spliced food to the Europeans anytime soon. Reports of the death of the four-year-old moratorium on such products have been greatly exaggerated.

Charles Goerens of Luxembourg, told the press yesterday, after a meeting of his fellow European Union environment ministers, that as long as traceability, labeling and liability remain unaddressed, the moratorium stays.

Still, the media were abuzz for days prior with reports of the new EU regulations on the release of genetically modified organisms that began yesterday. There's one catch. The individual member states must still approve the underlying legislation (Deliberate Release Directive 2001/18).

Even if that were to happen, European sources inform me that the risk assessment standards are so strict that they would disqualify any present product applications. Proposed new rules will be so strict that many U.S. products, such as animal feed, will have to be labeled. So, not only will the moratorium remain, but loopholes that currently allow some engineered food to slip into Europe will be tighter, making it harder for U.S. agribusiness to sell products there.

Those rather important issues aside, it is, again, the members who will determine whether to approve or reject any new biotech food products. But the six-- France, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Greece and Luxembourg -- that played pivotal roles in launching and maintaining the moratorium still want the labeling and traceability laws in place before they'll budge.

Problem is, those conditions haven't been met. And there's also the issue of liability, which, Goerens statement aside, somehow got lost in all this. Who's going to take responsibility for transgenic contamination of organic and conventional food and crops?

Agriculture ministers, if they didn't understand this after reading the Soil Association report on the near impossibility of agricultural biotechnology co-existing with conventional and organic farming, certainly got the grassroots message on Monday. That's when 300 farm, consumer and environmental organizations, representing the interests of millions of people (i.e., not agribusiness corporations), went to the Luxembourg meeting of EU agriculture ministers to demand that laws require labeling of seed packages as genetically modified if PCR tests reveal transgenic organisms in more than 0.1 percent of a sample. This is the de facto standard used now, and seed companies are meeting it.

The proposed Seed Directive would allow for organic and conventional seed to contain more transgenic material than that -- anywhere from 0.3 to 0.7 percent depending on the plant type -- without being labeled. European farmers are understandably concerned that this could lead to them unwittingly sowing the seeds of genetic contamination of the food supply. Once sown, those seeds would sprout into plants that pass their transgenic traits into surrounding fields.

But these questions of the moratorium and whether or not it's lifted might make one forget that the Europeans do not want genetically modified food. Eighteen biotech seed varieties were approved before the moratorium began. Yet, only one of them is planted, in Spain.

Moratorium or not, the biotech industry likely will remain shut out of Europe for the foreseeable future.