Parliament votes against GMO liability regime

MEPs prefer to wait for general rules on compensation for environmental damage

Biotechnology companies should not be made legally responsible for any environmental damage caused by their products until general EU rules on environmental liability are agreed, the European Parliament decided today.

The vote marks an about-turn for the assembly on legal liability for genetically modified (GM) products, following opposition from EU governments and the European Commission. MEPs also dropped two other key demands for new rules on the commercialisation of GM products, thus paving the way for a speedier adoption of the revised "deliberate release"directive and a resumption of the stalled approvals process.

Europe's biotech industry has strongly opposed a special environmental liability regime in the directive, arguing that no other industry has been singled out in this way and that such risks are presently uninsurable. The Commission has partially supported its stance, but plans to introduce a "horizontal" liability directive covering all sectors instead. Governments backed this strategy last year (ENDS Daily 25 June 1999).

However, the parliament's first reading call for a special liability regime for GMOs threatened to open up a prolonged conciliation battle and maintain the standstill in EU approval of new GM crops. This followed several countries' announcement that they would approve no new products until the revised directive was agreed.

Following stiff opposition from the centre-right EPP grouping today, the parliament failed to get the extra votes for the "qualified majority" needed to pass the amendments at their second reading. Instead it called for the Commission to propose a horizontal regime by 2001. Calls for a ban on the transfer of genes from GM plants to non-GM relatives in the wild and an immediate end to the use of antibiotic marker genes were also watered down in the vote. Industry had said both moves would cripple its development (ENDS Daily 3 March).

EU diplomats expect the directive will now be passed relatively quickly. European biotech association EuropaBio says today's vote will "help to end the deadlock" faced by the industry in getting its products on the market. But some MEPs were left dismayed. The assembly's Green group said it had displayed a "total lack of courage" in opting for an "almost complete capitulation to the demands of the biotech industry." Socialist rapporteur David Bowe said there was now a "gaping black hole in GM liability law."

Environmentalists welcomed the vote to include the indirect as well as direct effects of GMOs in risk assessment procedures, and to create public registers of all GMO crop sites. "We will ultimately end up with a better directive than the original," Friends of the Earth said.

Follow Up:
European Parliament, tel: 284 2111; from tomorrow the text of the parliament's amendments will be posted here

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