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Planet Ark World Environment News EU approves GMO canned maize, lifting 5-year ban

Date: 20-May-04
Country: BELGIUM
Author: Jeremy Smith

In the EU's first approval in more than five years, its executive arm authorised imports of a maize known as Bt-11, marketed by Swiss agrochemicals giant Syngenta (SYNN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) , for sale as tinned sweetcorn in supermarkets across the bloc.

"GM sweetcorn has been subjected to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world," said EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne in a statement. Bt-11 maize imports are now authorised for a period of 10 years.

"It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize," he said. "Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice."

The European Commission's decision follows months of deadlock between member states and flies in the face of European opinion, where consumers are largely hostile to biotech foods with opposition rated at more than 70 percent.

Supermarkets and food manufacturers have responded to this and still tend to avoid stocking produce that contains GMOs.

Although the EU decision confounds the hopes of GMO-sceptic states such as Austria and Denmark, it should delight some of the EU's top trading partners such as the United States, which has challenged the bloc's ban at the World Trade Organisation.

It also comes at a time when the world's biotech giants are facing their own problems over the controversial technology.

Last week, U.S. biotech giant Monsanto (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research) shelved its launch of the world's first GMO wheat. Just days later, it filed a suit against rival Syngenta (SYNZn.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) claiming a violation of its patent on a technique producing a popular type of GMO maize.

But the real battle for EU biotech policy, diplomats say, is when the bloc gives a green light to plant live GMO crops. That will be the acid test of whether the moratorium is really over.

SYNGENTA HAPPY, GREENS FURIOUS

Syngenta hailed the EU move, saying the company had always insisted that its product was safe.

"It has no financial impact. It is a step in the right direction but in the end the consumer will decide. That will take some time," a Syngenta spokesman said. "It is to be expected as it was based on all the right science."

However, environmental groups - who have long campaigned for EU's member states to keep the bloc's de facto moratorium in place - were outraged by the Commission's decision.

"The European Commission is supposed to represent the interests of European citizens and the environment, but has chosen in this case to defend U.S. farmers and narrow agro- business interests," said Eric Gall, GMO political advisor for lobby group Greenpeace's European policy unit.

"The union condemns the politicians who, relying on the internal mechanisms of the executive and the Commission, allow the College of Commissioners to take their place and in doing so discharge themselves of their responsibilities," said France's Confederation Paysanne farmers' union.

The EU's member states, their numbers recently swelled to 25, were deadlocked for months over whether to approve Bt-11. Under the bloc's complex decision-making process, the Commission had the power to rubberstamp the authorisation.

Before the Bt-11 approval, the EU's last authorisation for any GMO product was in October 1998 for a type of carnation. The last food product, a maize type, was approved in April 1998.

(additional reporting by Aine Gallagher in Brussels, Annika Breitdhardt in Zurich, David Evans in Paris)

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