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January 27, 2004

EU Moves Step Closer to Ending GM Food Ban

The European Union took one more step toward removing a five-year unofficial ban on new biotech crops and products on Wednesday when its executive backed a proposal to allow imports of gene-altered sweetcorn.

EU ministers now have three months to consider the proposal to authorize the maize, known as Bt-11 and marketed by Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta.

A "yes" verdict would end the EU's biotech ban, which has angered its top trading partners. If ministers cannot agree by the deadline, the executive Commission will then have the right to rubberstamp its own proposal.

"The EU has put in place a clear, transparent and stringent system to regulate genetically modified food, feed and plants," Commission President Romano Prodi said in a statement.

"It is only logical that this safe system continues to be applied in practice and that the EU moves ahead with pending authorizations," he said.

If allowed into the EU, the maize would be for eating straight from the can, not for planting.

Industry observers say authorization is just a matter of time as a clear "no" vote by ministers is ruled out by the balance of national opinions on the issue.

Syngenta shares rose on the news, outperforming Swiss blue chips and Europe's chemical sector, although the firm said the Commission's backing of Bt-11 did not yet mean more business.

More applications for GM approvals would follow soon, the Commission said, showing its determination to press ahead with a pro-GM policy and clear a backlog of applications that have piled up since the EU called a halt to new approvals in 1998.

A committee of EU member state experts would debate in February whether to allow imports of another GM maize called NK603, made by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, it said. Again, this application is for use as a food, not for growing.

The United States, backed by Canada and Argentina, has challenged the EU's ban at the World Trade Organization, saying the EU is acting illegally. Farmers in the United States say the ban costs them millions of dollars a year in lost sales.

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