Voynet calls for continued GMO moratorium

French minister says new directive not strong enough to respond to consumer concerns

A de facto EU moratorium on the approval of new genetically modified crops should remain in place even after the adoption of a new directive introducing much stricter regulations, French environment minister Dominique Voynet said yesterday.

Speaking in the margins of EU environment ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, Ms Voynet told journalists the new directive "is not strong enough to lift a moratorium...at this moment I see no reason to lift it."

The statement will dismay Europe's biotechnology industry, which has seen no new crop approvals at EU level since April 1998. A year ago, several countries said they would block approvals cleared by EU scientists until the new rules - which are awaiting European Parliament clearance - were in place.

But yesterday Ms Voynet said none of the proposed changes were enough to respond to consumers' concerns over GMOs. She said the directive should also include provisions making GM producers liable for any damage their products cause.

The minister's comments came shortly after French authorities discovered possible large-scale contamination of non-modified maize seed imports with GM varieties. The finding follows a Europe-wide scare over rapeseed last month which has dampened confidence in EU regulatory procedures. Ms Voynet's statement is significant because she will be responsible for steering "conciliation" negotiations between MEPs and government to finalise the GMO law this autumn under the French EU presidency, which starts next week.

The option of including a financial liability clause in the revised GMO authorisation directive was rejected by ministers last year and, narrowly, by MEPs earlier this year. Although the parliament's environment committee had pressed for the move, an interruption of the plenary session vote led to many MEPs being absent from the chamber, during which time the crucial amendment fell.

Ms Voynet admitted she had no power to change the parliament's decision, but said it was "not normal" for it to ignore its own committee's advice. She declined to say whether France would continue blocking approvals until a separate EU directive laying down "horizontal" liability rules was adopted. Such a directive is expected to be proposed within a year but is bound to take years to reach the statute books.

Ms Voynet said she would sound out her colleagues on maintaining the moratorium during an informal ministerial meeting in Paris from 14-16 July. Until then, she said, the support of five or six other states "remains solid."

Follow Up:
French environment ministry, tel: +33 1 42 19 20 21.

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