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Biotech Industry Losing Hope on Lifting Europe's GE Food Moratorium

Biotech Industry Losing Hope on
Lifting Europe's GE Food Moratorium

Financial Times (London)
November 10, 2001

Biotech groups despair at EU attitudes: GMOs are not popular among
EU governments despite Brussels marking the technology as an area for
growth. Michael Mann reports

When, if ever, will the European Union finally start approving
genetically modified crops again?

That is the question European biotechnology companies are asking after
EU environment ministers last month spurned the European Commission's
latest effort to get the long-stalled authorisation process moving again.

No new genetically modified crops have been approved in the EU for
more than three years. Last month, ministers made it plain that
proposed new rules on labelling and tracing modified ingredients will
have to be in place before they will consider lifting the block. This
could take as long as three years. While delighting the environmentalists,
who have run a highly effective campaign against such genetically
modified foods, the impasse has angered the biotech industry, set
Europe on a collision course with the US, and presented the
Commission with a serious dilemma.

The Commission has earmarked biotechnology as a key area for growth
in the EU's oft-stated quest to become the world's leading
knowledge-based economy by 2010.

Yet a hard core of EU governments has declared a voluntary moratorium
on new modified crop approvals, fearing a consumer backlash from the
perception that foods derived from such crops pose potential health
risks. European attitudes to food safety have hardened following a
number of scares, most notably mad cow disease crisis.

Evidence of danger to human health is scant. Opponents of modified
foods most often point to the US case of the corn StarLink, developed
by Aventis, which was linked to several complaints alleging serious
allergic reactions. However, StarLink was approved only for animal
feed and found its way accidentally into some food products.

Commission officials insist that genetically modified products face
much more stringent pre-release testing than conventional crops. They
point out that consumers happily swallow pills developed using
biotechnology, while spurning foods derived from modified crops.

Simon Barber of Europabio, which speaks for biotechnology companies in
Europe, claims there are double standards in Europe. "We hear a number
of positive statements about the importance of biotechnology, but the
regulatory machinery is stuck."

There is much at stake. In a recent report, the Commission highlighted
the dangers of a brain-drain to countries, such as the US, where the
business environment is far more favourable to the biotechnology
industry and where R&D expenditure dwarfs the amount of money spent
in the EU.

Biotech companies claim farmers are being deprived of new products
that could give them a vital competitive edge and also point to the
environmental benefits of modified crops, which reduce pesticide and
herbicide use.

Meanwhile, the US administration is coming under growing pressure from
industry to act against the EU, on the grounds that its moratorium is
illegal and prevents US farmers shipping to Europe varieties of corn
and soya that have not been approved for EU use.

The US claims to be losing Dollars 200m (Pounds 137m) in corn exports
a year and some estimates put the additional cost to the US of
applying new EU standards to bulk commodity exports at as much as
Dollars 4bn a year.

The Commission also believes that the moratorium is illegal, as EU
governments are refusing even to vote on approving 13 genetically
modified crop varieties already cleared by the EU's own scientific
advisers. Under the EU's regulatory system, the Commission is supposed
to authorise any products once they are passed as safe if governments
fail to take any decision.

But while it fears legal action from disgruntled biotech groups if it
fails to act, it is also acutely aware of the public relations
disaster if it chose to override the wishes of elected EU governments,
particularly on an issue as sensitive as food safety.

The hard core of countries behind the moratorium - France, Italy,
Austria, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg - originally called for new
rules on tracing and labelling modified foods a condition for ending
their opposition.

Margot Wallstrom, EU environment commissioner, hoped the Commission's
adoption in late July of proposals to meet these demands would end the
logjam. She has described the response she received as "very
disturbing".

A number of ministers stressed there could be no end to the moratorium
before the labelling rules were on the statute book, a process which
could take three years. France went further, suggesting there was a
need for specific new laws on companies' liability for environmental
damage caused by their products.

All this leaves the system in limbo and the Commission facing the
reality that EU governments are stifling an industry it has singled
out for favoured status.

"It's about time the member states actually stood up and said whether
or not they really want GMOs," says one frustrated official. "They've
got to stop using a science-based safety system for political ends."

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