New effort to win EU acceptance for genetically modified crops
By James Kanter
The biotechnology industry, claiming the backing of European Union governments, signaled a new effort Monday to win greater leeway to grow genetically modified crops in Europe, a region where citizens have long been skeptical about the safety and value of the technology.
EU experts deadlocked Monday on whether France and Greece should lift their bans on growing the sole bioengineered seed approved for planting: an insect-resistant corn engineered by Monsanto.
Biotechnology industry executives say that a bigger vote expected next week could lead to two additional engineered corn seeds being given permission to be marketed in the EU by year-end. One is produced by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of DuPont, with Dow AgroSciences. The other is from Syngenta.
Even so, a variety of forces are pushing Europe into re-examining the potential of gene-altered seeds despite a view among many citizens across the trade bloc that the crops are unsafe, dangerous to the environment and represent an unwelcome incursion by corporations into agriculture.
Since 1998, the commission has not approved any applications for farming gene-altered crops, and that makes Europe an important test site for whether the biotechnology industry and its supporters can burnish the industry's image and win the right to begin growing in significant quantities - something it has yet to accomplish despite successes in other parts of the world.
Progress in Europe also is important because acceptance there increases the chances that more farmers in other regions that grow gene-altered crops, like the United States, will be willing to buy seed for crops destined for export. At the moment, traces of genetically modified grains in shipments sent to Europe can lead to shipments being sent back to the United States.
Nathalie Moll, a spokeswoman for the European Association for Bioindustries, or EuropaBio, the main industry group in Europe, said the vote Monday showed new momentum behind moves in Europe to open up the market to gene-altered crops. "More and more member states are following the science as to the safety of these GM products and listening to the voice of their farmers, who are increasingly interested in using new technologies," she said, referring to genetically modified crops.
Usually a maximum of five countries had sided with the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, in similar votes this decade. On Monday, nine had done so, Moll said.
But environmental campaigners said that reasoning failed to take into account entrenched opposition to the technology in Europe, particularly in big member states like France and Poland.
"With more than half of countries supporting the bans staying in place, we should expect these countries to continue supporting their colleagues' rights in France and Greece and other countries to have national bans," said Helen Holder, the European coordinator for genetically modified organisms at Friends of the Earth.
The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will have 90 days to choose when governments will examine the matter of the French and Greek bans, once the commission sends the Czechs a request to do so. If there is further deadlock among governments, the commission must make a decision in the place of the governments. The commission is then entitled to enforce the lifting of the bans through a series of warnings and then, if necessary, through the European Court of Justice.
A spokesman for the Czech presidency said it was too early to say when a date would be set to discuss the bans. The Czechs are generally supportive of gene-altered crops as long as they are proved safe, but the only two countries consistently favorable to bioengineered crops have been Britain and Sweden.
The struggle over the right to plant genetically modified crops in Europe is emblematic of other challenges, too. As new forms of biology create opportunities to manipulate the plants and the animals that people eat, associated battles are simmering over a range of new crops, cloning and hormone treatments. These disputes pit champions of new technologies against a strong precautionary strain in the approach of many Europeans to novel foods and medicines.
The disputes also highlight concerns about corporate ethics that can be more entrenched in Europe than in other regions, including the United States. In particular, Europeans dislike the notion that big corporations are manipulating nature to create what some opponents of gene-altered crops call Frankenfoods.
Spain is currently the largest user of gene-altered seeds in Europe, and accounts for 75 percent of such farming on the Continent in terms of hectares planted. But the overall amount of bioengineered seeds used in European farming remains tiny compared with conventional agriculture.
Proponents of the technology say growing more bioengineered crops could lower food and feed costs after meteoric price rises last year, and that it would relieve legal pressure on Europe that is coming from important trading partners like the United States and from companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred, which sued the European Commission in 2007 for failing act swiftly enough in the approvals process.
Mike Hall, a spokesman for Pioneer, said the company now was waiting to see whether its corn seed, called 1507 and developed with Dow AgroSciences, would be approved by the EU this year before evaluating whether to keep the case open against the commission and possibly seeking damages for delay. Hall said he was aiming to enable farmers to buy the seed for planting in the spring of 2010.
Moreover, the continued efforts by the industry and the commission to allow the crops onto the market highlights how they are playing a long-term game to make the crops more common in Europe.
Last year the commission succeeded in pushing Austria - one of the nations most staunchly opposed to gene-altering technologies in foods and feeds - to lift its ban on the imports of the crops. And last week, the commission took new steps to push Austria to make it possible to start growing gene-altered products there.
The commission tried in 2007 to require Austria to lift its ban on farming bioengineered crops but governments deadlocked and derailed that effort. That led to a battle between Austria and the commission over the safety of Monsanto corn seed at the European Food Safety Authority, an advisory body to the European Commission.
Austria said the corn could harm the local ecology, including butterflies, and that the product might lose its efficacy against the pests it was designed to eliminate. The authority, however, affirmed that the corn seed did not pose risks and said Austria had failed to provide enough evidence that the ecology of Austria was threatened.
Similar opinions by the authority that Monsanto corn is safe led up to the vote on Monday by the so-called Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, a group of experts nominated by national governments.
EU governments are to consider the Austrian case, and a ban by Hungary, on March 2.