Members of the European Parliament last week approved a directive that could ultimately lift an unofficial moratorium on approving new strains of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for commercial use. However, disagreements on how tough the new laws are may hamper efforts of the biotechnology industry to move the issue forward.

The measures approved last Wednesday by an overwhelming majority of the 672 assembly will impose stricter guidelines on the labelling and monitoring of genetically modified foods, feeds and pharmaceutical products; phase out the use of antibiotic marker genes in altering food plants (a practice to guard against allergic reactions in humans) and set up a public registry where consumers can trace GM foods (for more on the proposals outlined in the directive, click here).

In effect, the law paved the way forward for a lifting of an unofficial licensing moratorium on GMOs that has existed since June 1999 and approval of commercial planting of GM crop varieties.

David Bowe, the MEP who guided the legislation through the parliament, had hoped that the new law would allow new GM crops to be planted as early as next year. He indicated that a raft of new gene-modified crops such as herbicide-resistant maize, rapeseed and fodder beet might now go ahead in anticipation of the moratorium being lifted and the new law being approved by Member States.

“We are cutting through red tape because industry cannot wait forever.”

“This is a unique agreement. We are cutting through red tape because industry cannot wait forever. We must keep Europe in the fast lane of technology,” he said.

But Bowe’s claim that the laws are the toughest in the world has not been met with the same enthusiasm by some Member States. Potential amendments to the law by six European nations led by France may block attempts to get the regulations off the ground.

The Directive is due to be ratified by Member States, a formal process that could take more than 18 months, but France, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg may prolong the period even further after attaching conditions to the authorising, planting and use of GMOs.

“[The countries] reaffirm their intention…of ensuring that the new authorisations for cultivating and marketing GMOs are suspended pending the adoption of effective provisions concerning a complete traceability of GMOs,” they said in a statement.

They plan to block GM permits until further rules – not in the new law – are put in place to ensure GM products can be traced back to their source. France has gone further. It says before new GMOs are authorised it wants a system whereby companies are legally liable to any damage their products cause to the environment.

The EU is in the process of setting out guidelines on this very matter but in view of the legal complexity of the area, it may be unrealistic that the regulation will be incorporated into the new directive under current timetables for the Directive to become law.

Commission spokeswoman, Beate Gminde said the EU hoped that the moratorium would be lifted as soon as possible, adding that the application of the Directive would not depend on the liability law.
“We have…promised we would come forward with clear rules on enabling traceability but it is not a mandatory prerequisite to have something on the table in place on liability,” she said

“A stalemate will irk the biotechnology establishment but please environmental activists.”

In the meantime the moratorium on licensing new GMOs looks set to remain in place as Member States iron out an agreement that includes statements relating to liability. A situation that could lead to a further delay in permits being granted for GM products, a stalemate will irk the biotechnology establishment but please environmental activists.

Some are already resigning themselves to a lengthy process.
“The actions by these other countries shows how this is going to be a very lengthy process,” said National Corn Growers’ Association spokesman Stewart Reeve. “There’s going to be a tough road ahead to get these regulations put on a more equal footing.”

Monsanto has been more guarded in its reaction. Loren Wassel, spokesperson for the group said: “We are pleased to see progress for a working regulatory system that can make timely decisions.”

Biotechnology observers contend that the moratorium and now stalling of the GM directive is covertly being used to protect the EU agricultural industry. US corn producers have been shut out of the European market due to an unwillingness on part of the EU to allow GM varieties to be sold or grown here. But the EU points out that US exporters are not barred from selling varieties already approved by them before the ban. The EU is also anxious to restart approval requests to prevent the danger of lawsuits from the biotechnology industry.

“They are just stalling, stopping the competition,” said Tony Anderson, president of the American Soyabean Association.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been cautious in their reaction to the Directive but both are still campaigning for a complete ban on GMOs, which they believe poses a threat to the natural environment. Friends of the Earth want the moratorium in place to allow for more risk assessment. 

“The directive should have been better”

“As it stands, farmers face the consequences of GMO pollution, we face the health risks of GMOs and the biotech industry escapes without any strict liability. The directive should have been better,” said Gill Lacroix, biotech coordinator of Friends of the Earth.

Despite arguments over the last week about the Directive, it is certain that it will only be a matter of time until we see commercial planting of GM crops in Europe. 

By Rajiv Desai, Deputy Editor,