EU states start talks to overhaul GMO law

Austria tries for ministerial common position by December; Germany pushes for deregulation

EU governments launched in-depth negotiations this week on a proposal to revise the controversial EU directive on the marketing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The issue is a top priority for the Austrian presidency, which is pushing for ministerial agreement by December. However, there are deep divisions on the proposal.

Germany, in particular, opposes key aspects of what the European Commission has proposed. "We wanted deregulation, not more regulation," a German diplomat told ENDS Daily today. She said the government was concerned by warnings from Germany's biotechnology industry that stricter EU laws would drive investment overseas and cause the EU to lose out on a significant commercial opportunity.

As in other EU countries, there is considerable German public unease over the new technology, but opposition is "not as fanatical" as in some other states, the source said. The government argues that if it is made harder for companies to obtain approval for modified products, public concern is more likely to be fuelled than assuaged.

In three days of talks this week, Germany - backed to varying degrees by Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal - objected to a proposal to impose a seven-year time limit on marketing consents for modified crops or micro-organisms.

It also opposed the idea that modified organisms used in the environment should be compulsorily monitored after they have been approved to check for possible effects on health or the environment. Supported by Belgium and France, Germany argued that the need for monitoring and its scope should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Greece and Portugal all favour monitoring.

Other controversial issues include a proposal to simplify the approvals process for GMOs with well-known risk characteristics, new labelling requirements for modified products, the role of EU scientific committees in advising on applications, and EU involvement in determining how member states should carry out risk assessments.

Published last November, the European Commission's proposal to revise the 1990 directive on the deliberate release of GMOs was drawn up to address complaints from all sides over the current approval regime (ENDS Daily 26 November 1997).

Biotechnology companies complain that the process is too slow and should be streamlined if not revamped altogether (ENDS Daily 24 July), while environmental groups argue that the system lacks public trust and should be strengthened. And while states like Germany appear to be backing the biotechnology industry, Austria and Luxembourg are maintaining unilateral bans on a variety of modified maize despite its having received official EU approval.

Follow Up:
Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.

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