BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union environment ministers are holding heated talks over Austria's contentious unilateral 8-year-old ban on GM maize imports. But member states are split almost down the middle on whether the country should be obliged to come into line with EU law, or whether its concerns over safety entitle it to keep GMOs out.

At the center of the row are two types of GM maize, MON810 and T25, which Austria consistently has refused to import, despite the authorization they received at the EU level in 1998, and despite repeated rejections of the scientific validity of the Austrian ban. The outcome of the vote in Europe's complex qualified majority voting system was not known as this issue went to press. But if, as has happened in the past, no clear decision emerges, the matter will be sent back to EU officials to impose a final ruling.

The eventual decision also will have relevance for an ongoing clash over EU compliance with World Trade Organization rules. More than a year ago, the U.S., Canada and Argentina complained that their trade with Europe in genetically modified organisms was being unfairly impeded by Austria's moratorium. The WTO has backed the complaint, leaving the EU under an obligation to respect international trade laws.

The EU's environment ministers are holding their talks just days after new figures revealed that European biotech crop cultivation is increasing. Oct. 29, EuropaBio, the biotech industry association, released European biotech crop data showing 110,077 hectares under cultivation in seven EU countries, representing a 77 percent increase over last year. Cultivation has quadrupled in France and more than doubled in the Czech Republic and Germany. Spain, Europe's largest cultivator of biotech crops, saw increases of more than 40 percent, after 10 years of cultivation of the same product. To date, the only type of biotech crop grown in the EU is Bt maize.

"We are delighted to see that the uptake of biotech crops is growing despite the fact that only one product is available on the European market," said Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of EuropaBio.

"The cultivation of biotech plants is legally possible in all EU countries and we strongly urge policymakers in Europe to give all farmers the right to choose the products which they think are best to protect their crops and increase their competitiveness," he added.

In a further twist, on Oct. 24 EU officials authorized four more GM products after EU ministers had reached stalemate on those applications too. They are three GM maize products (1507xNK603; NK603 x MON810; 59122 Herculex RW), authorized for feed and food use and for import and processing, and a GM sugar beet (H7-1) for use as food and feed. All had received positive safety assessments from the EU's food safety authority, and had gone through the lengthy EU authorization procedure. The authorizations are valid for 10 years.

That brings to 15 the number of authorized GMO products in the EU, with 43 further applications pending.

However, fresh doubt was thrown over the industry's prospects in Europe when French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on Oct. 25 the suspension of all commercial cultivation of biotech crops in France until a new body, which is expected to be created before the end of the year, has reviewed their merits.

EuropaBio reacted immediately. It said Sarkozy's call for the creation of a new independent body "shows distrust in the accumulated scientific evidence to date" from French and European experts and approval systems. A suspension also "flies in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence and positive commercial experience of biotech crops around the world." It also will damage the competitiveness of French farmers, EuropaBio warned.

EU officials also have commented adversely on the French plan. Marianne Fischer-Boel, European agriculture commissioner, said a ban would be illegal, and Stavros Dimas, environment commissioner, asked Sarkozy to revoke the proposed suspension because it is contrary to European law.