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EU Commission prepares for battle over GMO seeds

(Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Jeremy Smith, Reuters, 08/13/04: BRUSSELS - Europe may again display its deep differences over biotechnology next month when the European Commission battles to find common ground on purity rules for seeds, the last piece in the EU's legal GMO jigsaw.

Brussels wants to update legislation on seeds so that it can ease the way to approving new genetically modified (GMO) crops for planting. But this has proved so controversial that even the EU executive, usually united on GMO policy, cannot agree.

A draft law has bounced between various Commission units for more than a year. The group of 25 commissioners will discuss GMO seeds at a meeting on September 8 in a last bid to agree policy before the current executive's mandate expires on October 31.

That may not be easy, diplomats and industry observers say, given the rift between the five units involved - agriculture, environment, research, trade and food safety.

"This proposal has been around for quite some time. They seem to want to adopt it before the Commission leaves (office)," said Eric Gall, GMO advisor at environment group Greenpeace.

"It will be the five commissioners in charge...and I don't know how they are going to come to an agreement. They are in such a deadlock within the Commission," he said.

A draft law circulating in May listed six crops - rapeseed, maize, sugar and fodder beet, potatoes and cotton - with proposed GMO content thresholds from 0.3 to 0.5 percent.

Batches of conventional seed containing genetically modified material below those thresholds would not have to be labelled.

Insiders say the Commission's food safety unit insists on keeping the thresholds and crop types as detailed in the draft. Its row has been with the environment unit, which is pushing for a 0.3 percent level but only for maize and rapeseed.

Despite lifting its five-year moratorium on approving new biotech foods in May, the EU is still divided on GMOs in food - whether as seeds for planting or as imported products ready for eating or for use in processing to make animal feed.

Green groups say seed thresholds should not exceed a technical detection level of 0.1 percent since anything higher makes it impossible to meet strong consumer demand for non-GMO food.

GMO-sceptic countries Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark have already said they can only support a maximum 0.1 percent.


To make matters more complicated, the Commission will also discuss extending national authorisations for 17 specific seeds to an EU-wide authorisation, entering each seed into what is called the Common Catalogue. This process is usually automatic.

But these are GMO seeds, different strains of Monsanto's (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research) 810 maize that is engineered to resist certain insects. As yet, no biotech seeds have been approved at EU level.

Green groups say allowing the widespread use of GMO seeds is irresponsible while most countries still have no proper rules on how farmers should separate organic, conventional and GMO crops to minimise cross-contamination.

"This is again a thorny issue where legally they (the Commission) have to put these seeds on the Common Catalogue," said Adrian Bebb of environmental group Friends of the Earth.

"Virtually none of the EU countries have...regulations in place yet, so it's going to be pretty unpopular."