GM maize risk finding sparks European storm

EU delays approval for similar variety amidst calls for complete ban on insect-resistant GM crops

European regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops has been thrown into more confusion after US scientists reported that pollen from a type of maize engineered to resist insects harmed butterfly larvae. The European Commission yesterday froze the authorisation process for a similar modified maize which was due to be approved soon, while EU environmental groups have called for all insect-resistant GM varieties to be banned. Meanwhile, Austria has announced a move to ban all varieties of GM maize.

Writing in yesterday's edition of Nature, scientists from Cornell University reported that pollen from a variety of maize engineered to express a toxin gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) killed nearly half of Monarch butterfly larvae exposed to it. Bt toxin is the main means being used to engineer insect-resistant crops, and several varieties using the technique have been approved in the EU and elsewhere.

The European Commission responded yesterday by freezing the EU approvals process for a similar GM maize developed by US firm Pioneer-Hi-bred. According to officials, the variety (know as "809") was to have been scrutinised by EU environment ministers next month, who would only be able to reject the application by unanimity. The Commission was about to recommend a positive approval for the variety. It will now "wait for further studies" before deciding what to do, a spokesperson said yesterday.

European environmental groups have reiterated calls for all GM maize plantings to be stopped, including those of EU-approved varieties such as Novartis' "event 176" and Monsanto's "Yieldguard". "It is hard to understand how the Commission can put the approval of one Bt-maize on hold... but claim that there was no need to act on those varieties...already on the market and planted in Germany and Spain," said a spokesperson for Greenpeace yesterday.

Austrian consumer protection minister Barbara Prammer took the same line today, announcing an intention to ban all varieties of Bt-maize. "The decision taken by the EU Commission must have consequences for Monsanto's maize, which has been licensed at EU-level," she told ENDS Daily. At European level, the Greens in the European Parliament called for immediate suspension of all Bt crops "approved or pending" in the EU and a "freeze" on all other GM crops.

Like environmental groups, Pioneer Hi-Bred, also accuses the European Commission of inconsistency, but argues that the similarity between variety 809 and the already approved Bt-maize types means that the former should be approved rather than the latter banned. "We believe in science," spokesperson Thierry Habotte told ENDS Daily. "We have never put on the market a product that is not safe."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111. Greenpeace International, tel: + 32 2 280 1400; Austrian consumer affairs ministry, tel: +41 1 71 17 24 621. References: "Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae." Nature, vol 399, p214.

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