EU states make progress on GMO law revision

Experts agree wider risk assessment before GMO approvals, new monitoring guidelines

Experts from EU member states are close to agreeing legally binding rules on risk assessment and monitoring of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as part of talks to overhaul the EU's 1990 "deliberate release" directive. The guidelines are expected to be crucial in preventing conflicts between member states in deciding whether to approve modified crops and other GMOs.

Experts have decided that a wide risk assessment of genetically modified crops and other organisms should be made before their release to the environment is approved. Scandinavian countries, Austria, and more recently the UK (ENDS Daily 21 October), have all criticised current EU requirements for risk assessment as too limited to maintain public confidence in the safety of GMOs.

A new draft annex on risk assessment principles includes requirements to look at indirect impacts of GMOs, at the potential cumulative effects of authorising several large-scale releases of organisms and to consider the likely impact of GMOs on agricultural practice.

The draft annex was presented to government officials during talks last week, together with another setting out in broad terms how monitoring regimes should be devised to assess the health, safety and environmental impacts of GMOs both immediately after their release and in long-term surveillance programmes.

The Austrian EU presidency is anxious to reach political agreement on the revision at the quarterly meeting of environment ministers in December. An Austrian official told ENDS Daily today that given recent bans on certain GMOs announced by Austria, Luxembourg, France and Greece, the government feels this could be its best chance to achieve a revised directive that is precautionary enough for its liking. "The political climate is right now....You cannot tell what will happen in a few months time."

It is "likely" that agreement will be reached, the source said, but he warned that key political questions remain to be resolved. For instance, while most countries feel that monitoring of the impacts of GMOs should be mandatory for every release, Germany has until now insisted that the need for monitoring should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Officials say there was no sign of any change in its position in last week's talks despite the recent change to a red-green administration in Germany.

Meanwhile, biotechnology firms are likely to be heartened by a move to relax the Commission's proposal to require a mandatory review of all GMO product authorisations after seven years. Most countries are now in favour of extending the review period to up to 12 years, applied on a case-by-case basis, according to sources.

Other outstanding issues include the precise scope of the directive, the desirability of simplified procedures for "low risk" releases of GMOs, rules for labelling raw modified materials and the role of EU scientific and ethical committees in the approvals process.

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

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