A new directive which insists that stringent risk assessment tests must be performed on genetically modified crops before they will be allowed for sale or planting in the EU came into force Thursday.
EU bottles up debate over GM foods
The directive admits that genetically modified (GM) foods may pose environmental and health risks and that countries indicating that they are willing to grow or import them should conduct detailed risk assessment tests. Governments also have a statutory duty to consult the public.
The agreement by EU Environment Ministers meeting in Luxembourg gladdened the hearts of environmental groups but did little to hasten the process for the huge biotechnology firms waiting in the wings for approval for their crops. Since 1999 the EU has maintained a moratorium on approving new GM foods.
This, in effect, has stymied the process of biotechnology giants such as Monsanto, Aventis and DuPont eager to cash in on the large and potentially lucrative European market. They had hoped that the ministers would have proposed to lift the moratorium on growing the crops, but to no avail. What Thursday's decision does mean for the firms, however, is that they can resubmit their applications with adjustments to the EU commission.
Crop approval unlikely within a year
However, there is still a lingering fear among environmentalists that the EU will lift its three-year moratorium on approving new GM products.
In an interview with BBC News, Friends of the Earth spokesperson Geert Ritsema said that although the new risk assessment procedures were welcome, "It's definitely not enough to cover all the risks that genetically modified organisms pose to human health and the environment."
The points of contention are labeling and traceability: what is the minimum amount of GM products present in a food to warrant labeling, and where were the crops grown?
The EU commission proposed that food containing more than one percent should be labeled. But this did not bode well with Sweden, who insists on zero tolerance and Britain, who opposes the labeling of food with minute traces arguing that it is neither practical nor achievable. Highly processed products like oils in which genetic modification cannot be detected because the DNA has been destroyed will also be subjected to labeling.
Barrier to trade and industry
The British government and the European Commission are both eager to see the moratorium ended. Britain is concerned that its biotechnology industry is being held back by the delay, and the Commission is worried that U.S. firms may sue over being jammed out of the European market.
"Once again the UK government is putting the interests of the biotech industry ahead of consumers and the environment. Why else is the UK opposing European GM labeling rules when every other member supports them?" said Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth in an interview with The Guardian.
The squabbling has forced France, Luxembourg, Austria, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Belgium to maintain a ban, set in place since June 1999, to block any GM products not already authorized in the EU from entering the market ahead of the new regulations.
"There are no reasons to lift the moratorium while the traceability and labeling laws are not in place," said a French source at Thursday's meeting.
Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg and Greece have also proposed that the labeling extend to milk and eggs that are produced from animals raised on GM feed.
The debate must now be extended to November.