BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European biotech industry has thrown the first punch in a developing row over genetically modified products. Perturbed by rumors that the European Union is planning to ban genetically modified corn seeds, the European Federation of Biotechnology has delivered a high-profile message straight to the heart of the Brussels bureaucracy.

A delegation of scientists from the federation handed a letter to the EU's top environment official, Commissioner Stavros Dimas, warning him against making decisions "based on discredited scientific arguments." Dimas' staff have prepared a draft opinion that recommends rejection of two Bt maize product submissions on grounds of environmental safety, invoking in particular risks to butterfly species and other insects. But EFB said the evidence for that view just doesn't stack up, describing it as "sloppy and not meriting peer reviewed publication."

The products in question are made by Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dow Agrosciences and Syngenta. Although the EU has a distinctly checkered history in its acceptance of GM products, it has never formally rejected an application. The rejection of these products would mark a new departure that the biotech industry deeply fears. Such a decision "would be setting a precedent for EU officials to reject products based on nonverified scientific data," said a spokesperson for industry association EuropaBio.

"We consider that the draft decisions do not have a scientific basis and seem to be made without considering the consequences for Europe or the fact that similar varieties have been growing in Europe for the past nine years with high adoption rates with no adverse environmental effects and in coexistence with conventional and organic farming," said the scientists at the EFB, which brings research institutes together with industrialists.

It described the draft decisions as "totally unacceptable, not only for European farmers and consumers, but also set a terrible example for other parts of the world that presently draft guidelines for the cultivation of GM crops, since they look to Europe as an example."

Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of EuropaBio, said: "Commissioner Dimas is recycling old and already refuted arguments and proposing the rejection of two products that have been comprehensively evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority. He is attempting to undermine the entire EU safety assessment process across a broad range of innovative activities and products to come."

EU officials offered a muted response, underlining that no decision had been taken on the case and defending the operation of the precautionary principle in reaching decisions. A ruling from the EU is expected in the new year.

Meanwhile, in a separate move on a related subject, the World Trade Organization has extended until January the deadline for the EU to end blockages on imports of GM corn after it was found to be in breach of international trade rules by allowing its member states to refuse entry to duly authorized products.

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