BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Just days before Austria's six-month spell in the chair of the European Union comes to an end (June 30), it is making a final attempt to tighten up EU controls on genetically modified organisms. A meeting of environment ministers from all 25 member states is being asked this week by Austria to suggest ways of impeding access of GMOs to the EU market.

Throughout its presidency, Austria has been trying to marshal support for its own distaste for GMOs, and the agenda it has fixed for this meeting is geared toward stiffening resistance among the other member states to authorization of new products.

Up to 10 member states have repeatedly sought to prevent GMO launches because of their concerns over safety and have complained that the EU procedures do not allow sufficient protection. Under EU rules, if ministers do not present an overwhelming majority in council meeting against a new GMO, the officials in the European Commission are able to grant the authorization.

Austria's preparatory paper for this week's meeting asks "what further steps should be taken" to impose tougher controls, since several countries have "expressed concerns at the way in which decisions authorizing GMOs are taken at EU level, in particular concerning the fact that the commission has authorized products, under the committee procedure, against a simple majority in the council." Austria claims that "member states" input into evaluation applications is reduced.

The discussion takes place against a background of continuing divergence in the EU over the merits of biotechnology and the adequacy of control mechanisms. Just days before the council meeting, the European Food Safety Authority - which is responsible for risk assessment of GMOs within the EU's regulatory system and which had been criticized by some member states for ignoring their concerns - wrote to environment ministers on June 22 offering to work more closely with them. The authority "would like to reaffirm its standing commitment to working with member states, not only in maximizing existing and establishing future co-operation but also in developing scientific approaches together with member states on GMO risk assessment," it said. The authority is promising more feedback to member states, indicating how concerns have been dealt with in its opinions and providing reasoned argumentation when specific comments are not taken on board. It is also open to "increased participation of national authorities in carrying out environmental risk assessments," it said.

The membership of the authority's management board also has been adjusted, but biotech critics also have complained that the new members appointed are still too close to industry. Jim Murray, director of the leading European consumer organization, said, "We are extremely worried that this board is not representative of the consumers it is supposed to protect and inform."

Meanwhile, a biotechnology policy meeting on June 20 planned to rally support for biotechnology and organized by Finland - which takes over the EU presidency July 1 - also came in for severe criticism from environmentalists. Finland strongly endorses the official EU line that biotechnology is a central aspect of the EU's long-term strategy for economic growth and jobs, and it brought together national authorities and industry representatives to assess how the European climate for biotechnology development could be improved - in raising risk capital, overcoming national regulatory divergences, and boosting public understanding and support. Paula Nybergh, director general for technology policy in the ministry of trade and industry in Finland, also urged closer integration between medical applications of biotechnology and the entire European health care system.

But Friends of the Earth Europe said the meeting is "taking place behind closed doors and from which environmental nongovernmental organizations have been excluded." Helen Holder, the organization's European GMO campaign leader, said, "Meeting in secret to discuss issues of high public importance is an absolute disgrace and a bad sign of what is to come under the Finnish presidency of the EU. Once again, big industry has a permanent seat in biotech strategy discussions, whereas environmental groups are barred."

Partnership Seeking Alternatives To Animal Testing

The European biotechnology and medicine industries are among the protagonists of a new action program to accelerate research into alternative approaches to animal testing. The European Partnership on Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing announced June 21 a list of activities to be carried out over the next five years aimed at replacing, reducing or refining animal use. The plan ranges from assimilating best research practice across industry sectors, to evaluating the regulatory requirements for animal testing, and improving validation and acceptance of alternative approaches to safety testing.

The first report on implementation should be available by December 2006.

The new program springs from a partnership set up in November 2005 between trade associations and companies to apply advanced methodologies from biosciences and medicine to develop novel approaches to assessing safety. The European association for bio-industries, EuropaBio, and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations were two of the signatories, along with trade associations from the chemical, crop protection, cosmetic, detergents and animal health sectors, and with BASF, Bayer, Henkel Phenion, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oréal, Pfizer, P&G and Unilever.

Anti-GMO Campaign In European Parliament Fails

An attempt by opponents of GM crops to win European Parliament support for a pan-European ban has failed. Campaigners, led by the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside, had been lobbying to obtain the necessary minimum of 364 votes to get official backing for their view. But by the mid-June deadline for the procedure the campaigners employed, only 208 members of the European Parliament had signed the statement. The campaigners said in late June that this was "a good result" that had made many members of the parliament more aware of the issue. "Some responses demonstrated a clear commitment to keeping GMOs out of their countries," said a statement from the coalition, which vowed to continue "to fight together to free Europe from GMOs."