2 November 2001

EUs GMcrop licensing ban looks likely to stay

By Philip Clarke

Europe editor

EUROPES three-year-old ban on the licensing of genetically modified crops looks set to stay – despite the threat of a legal challenge by bio-technology companies in the US.

Environment ministers from member states are under increasing pressure to relax their opposition to GMOs. Even European environment commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, has told them that the ban is clearly illegal.

DEFRA secretary, Margaret Beckett, believes GMO approvals should resume on a case-by-case basis. But France and Luxembourg want new laws covering "environmental responsibility" before any more licences are granted. That could take years to devise and implement.

It became clear that a hardcore of six member states are determined to stick it out during a televised debate on Oct 29. French environment minister, Yves Cochet, said: "It is not feasible to start discussions on lifting the moratorium as long as the system on traceability and labelling is not fully operational. That is still some way off."

The commission had hoped to persuade the ministers to allow some resumption of GMO approvals, in particular for 13 products that have passed all the safety checks but had not completed the paperwork by the time the moratorium was introduced in 1998.

Mrs Wallstrom explained that the bio-tech companies had agreed to voluntarily abide by new EU licensing laws, even though they do not come into force for another year. But the failure of environment ministers to lift the moratorium had left the EU in a vulnerable position, she added.

Hans Hoyer of the American Soybean Association in Brussels confirmed that a legal challenge in the World Trade Organisation is now likely.

"We are very disappointed that the moratorium is to continue," he told farmers weekly. "We feel it is an interference in trade."

If a legal challenge is successful, the EU could be forced to introduce GMOs under the old legislation, which is not as comprehensive as new laws in the pipeline. Recent estimates by a group of 18 US bio-tech interests put the loss of export earnings at over $4bn (£2.8bn) a year.

lA GM food conference was cancelled after environmental speakers were told the venue was the John Innes Institute in Norwich and the public would be refused entry. &#42