Biotech Firms Seek to Crack EU Markets
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Taking the European Union at its word that the biotech ban is about to end, seed companies are testing the waters by submitting new applications for genetically modified corn, cotton, canola and other plants.
But prospects are murky. Even as some EU countries signal the 5-year-old moratorium on biotech crops could be over in a matter of months, others are raising new objections.
New EU legislation that took effect in October was intended to end the ban by strengthening decade-old rules on testing and licensing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as crops or ingredients.
Since January the new procedure has attracted 18 applications, the first of which are expected to reach the decision stage this autumn. EU environment ministers were to be briefed on the new applications Tuesday.
``We understand the member states do see now a clear road map forward ... (and) we’re optimistic and positive on that,″ said Lutz Knabe, spokesman for French-based Bayer CropScience, which has five biotech products in the pipeline.
But U.S.-based Monsanto, whose Roundup Ready corn, canola rapeseed and other products account for 10 of the new applications, is not getting hopes up too high.
``It’s still too early to tell what the position will really be,″ said spokesman Thomas McDermott in Brussels. ``There’s some unclear signals.″
With environmental and health risks covered by the new rules, food-loving Italy has been pushing for an examination of potential economic risks, especially to organic farmers. It also is asking whether EU rules are needed to guard against contamination from one field to another.
Similar opposition exists in France, Greece, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark, where parliament in January demanded a study on whether the country could go completely GMO-free.
``We need a complete economic analysis of what impact the genetically modified crop will have on the farm economy,″ said Christian Hansen of the Danish People’s Party, a government ally.
The EU head office, which wants the ban lifted, argues that economic interests would not be enough to legally block a farmer who wanted to plant an approved biotech crop from doing so.
``The establishment of GMO-free zones against the will of some farmers runs counter to the very principal of coexistence,″ according to a draft report leaked by environmental groups on Monday.
Given that growing conditions differ widely across Europe, the report, to be adopted Wednesday, recommends leaving it up to EU governments to adopt their own rules for ensuring biotech, conventional and organic farms can coexist.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which oppose biotech farming, said the European Commission was ``dodging its responsibility.″
``With no hard legislation in this area, genetic contamination will soon become a ‘fait accompli’ in EU agriculture, depriving European consumers and farmers of the right to choose,″ the groups charged.
In France, officials have shown signs of yielding since their own Academies of Sciences and Medicine last December reported finding no evidence of health or environmental problems connected with biotech and urged the EU to lift the ban.
French minister for research Claudie Haignere told parliament last week that France would support lifting the moratorium ``a few months from now,″ but only after separate EU rules requiring traceability and labeling for products derived from GMOs enter into force.
The Bush administration has since backed down on an threat made in January to pry open the EU market by challenging the ban at the WTO _ a step many predicted would have backfired by inflaming emotions and stoking resentment.
Yet even if everything happens on schedule, biotech companies are not counting on immediate sales.
``We hope in general that the market turns to really growing around 2006 or 2007,″ said Knabe at Bayer CropScience.
On the Net:
European Commission biotechnology website: http://gmoinfo.jrc.it/