EU prepares for fundamental debate on GMOs

Environment ministers to go back to basics as GM crop moratorium fever grows

EU environment ministers are set to throw up fundamental questions on the EU's approach to authorising the cultivation and sale of genetically modified organisms when they meet in Brussels in just over one week.

The Austrian EU presidency originally wanted to achieve a common position on how to revise the 1990 directive which governs GMO "deliberate releases". This has become impossible because the European Parliament has yet to give its first reading and has warned the Council of Ministers not to reach any sort of political agreement in the meantime (ENDS Daily 11 November).

In the last two years, political events have moved rapidly to throw the EU's entire legal framework for dealing with genetic modification into confusion. Austria, Luxembourg, Greece and France have all invoked emergency powers under the deliberate release directive to ban specific GM crops already approved at EU level.

Denmark and the UK have both reached agreements with the biotechnology industry that no GM crops will be planted commercially in 1999. EU environmental groups and the European Parliament's environment committee have all called for a moratorium on genetically modified products (ENDS Daily 13 October).

Rumours circulating in Brussels this week even asserted that EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard was going to call for an EU-wide moratorium, though her spokesperson Peter Jørgensen described these as "bullshit".

In the face of escalating political and legal uncertainty, EU environment ministers will now hold an "orientation debate" on the deliberate release directive. This is expected to stray well beyond the specific immediate issues relating to the directive, following specific requests for a general debate from Ms Bjerregaard, the Danes, the French and others.

Ministers look set to use the occasion to bring up major problems that they feel have yet to be addressed. According to one Brussels diplomat, almost every country would have major points of concern they want to bring up. Among the most vocal are likely to be France, Denmark and the UK.

One of the key issues that will be addressed is whether it will be possible to reassess authorisation already given to GM crops. According to sources, diplomats have already discussed ways of making the revised directive retroactive, possibly by imposing time limits for existing authorisations, as is foreseen for new authorisations in the proposed revision.

Another aspect is "traceability". At the last ministerial meeting, France issued a statement saying that one of the key things missing from the deliberate release directive, and the directives on seeds was the provision to trace GMOs through to their final point of sale. Sources say this is now likely to be addressed within the draft revision.

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

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