TCS Daily

Fuel for the Fire

By Renee Cordes - October 22, 2002 12:00 AM

As if things were not bad enough for the biotech industry in Europe, new rules governing the authorization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the European Union that took effect this month will make it even harder for companies to bring new products to the market and keep them there.

The new legislation, which replaces rules dating back more than a decade, introduces a more detailed pre-market scientific evaluation of GMOs in the 15-nation bloc and greater transparency throughout the authorization procedure. It also mandates post-market monitoring and general surveillance of the potential longer-term effects.

Requiring mandatory consultation of the public and giving it access to company documents, also required in the new legislation, opens up a potentially very ugly can of worms. Instead of boosting public confidence in GMOs, which it purportedly sets out to do, the new regime may do just the opposite by giving anti-GM campaigners even more ammunition to fuel unfounded fears about Frankenfoods and the like.

One has to wonder then what the European Commission was thinking when it claimed - well, hinted really - that the days of the four-year de facto moratorium of new GM approvals in the EU were numbered. "The Commission considers that it has fulfilled its commitment to create the conditions to restart the authorization procedure for GMOs," the EU executive said the day the new rules took effect. "It is ready to play its role in managing the new procedure."

Still, "it does not mean we will see an authorization tomorrow," noted a spokeswoman for Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.

Indeed, it will now be left to companies seeking approvals and the EU member states to get the ball rolling again. Producers whose applications had been on hold since the de facto moratorium was imposed will now have to resubmit them with additional information under the tough new rules, a procedure that some say could take no less than a year.

Meanwhile, EU governments have made little if any progress on proposed new rules governing the labeling and traceability of GM food and animal feed, without which France and other countries will never to agree to new approvals. French Agriculture Minister Hervé Gaymard predicts that there will be a political agreement at some point. The catch? It won't even be on the agenda for another nine to 10 months.

But even with tough new labeling rules in place, argues anti-GM campaigner Friends of the Earth Europe, "major problems such as liability, seed purity and the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops need to be resolved before the moratorium is lifted."

What then is the point of a producer submitting or resubmitting an application for new GM crops with so much still left hanging in the air?

While the EU may be doing its utmost to assuage public fears about the safety of GMOs, it's doing so at the expense of depriving these same people - as well as starving persons in developing countries - of innovative and environmentally friendly new products. Nor is it helping relations with the U.S., whose farmers lose an estimated $200 million annually in corn sales to Spain and Portugal alone.

"While we appreciate today's announcement by the European Commission, it remains unclear whether it will lead to any real change," said Richard Mills, spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative. "The moratorium has been a result of decisions taken by a number of EU member states, and only they can end it - through an immediate, unconditional and unambiguous statement that the biotech approvals process is restarting now."

Washington - not to mention the rest of the world - is obviously in for a long wait.



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