The European parliament is set to approve a new directive that could end the de facto moratorium on approving new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the European Union.
The EU has not granted licenses for the commercial development of new GM crops since April 1998 because of concern over potential health and environmental risks linked with the technology.

The parliament is due to vote on the directive on Wednesday. The new law proposes toughening rules governing the planting of GMOs, including improved risk assessments and monitoring of crops.

“If this is approved, it will give us the toughest GMO laws in the world,” said David Bowe, the socialist MEP who has guided the legislation through parliament.

The new rules will tighten up the existing system; requiring more stringent risk assessments, improving crop monitoring, gradually phasing out potentially harmful antibiotic genes from GMOs and ensuring that licences have to be renewed periodically. Each new application will still have to be approved by a majority of the 15 EU states, according to the directive. 

Biotechnology companies have urged the EU to lift their moratorium on new products, while the US has been pressing for what it regards as a clear system of regulation based on scientific considerations.

“We believe this agreement should restart the regulatory process in Europe. The first votes (on new products) may follow just a few months from this week’s decision,” said Monsanto, which has several products waiting for approval. Fourteen applications from biotech companies to plant GM products for commercial use have been put on hold during the moratorium.

The European Commission has so far failed to produce follow-up legislation to improve the traceability and labelling of GMOs, and to define more clearly companies’ environmental liability.

“The new directive is not enough to protect the environment, consumers and farmers from GM crops,” said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth.

The directive is likely to meet opposition with France already indicating it will block all new licences for commercial growing of GM crops. Italy and Greece hold similar views.