BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Additional controls on GM crops were called for by European Union agriculture ministers meeting in Brussels May 22.

In a follow-up to the lively discussions on co-existence of GM and non-GM crops that took place in Vienna in April, ministers asked for changes to labeling for seeds to make it easier to respect the labeling threshold for final product at the end of the production chain. It also wants more work done to identify best practices among EU member states on segregation measures, and to develop guidelines for crop-specific measures.

But the new measures envisaged do not go far enough to satisfy the opponents of GM crops, who had been hoping the Austrian Presidency of the EU would push through much tougher measures, including mandatory liability requirements on industry. Friends of the Earth Europe accused ministers of allowing "irreversible contamination of Europe's food and environment from GM crops," and of ignoring concerns raised by farmers, consumers and environmental groups, as well as by European regions and local authorities. Instead, ministers merely urged joint exploration of solutions.

The European biotechnology industry association, EuropaBio, interpreted the decision positively, as "recognition that the very different agro-environmental and growing conditions across the EU require flexibility in technical rules," and said it supported the recommendation for more discussion on technical guidelines and seed thresholds. But it insisted that all European farmers should have the freedom to choose to use GM crops.

But meanwhile, the Polish government has banned the import and sale of GM maize seeds, partly in response to a campaign by local anti-GMO activist groups. The ban affects 16 varieties of genetically modified maize throughout the country. In principle, the seeds can be marketed anywhere in the EU, but Poland has requested a national ban on the grounds that they are not suitable for cultivation in any part of its territory.

The EU authorities have accepted the decision, since those varieties have a long growing cycle, which, in Poland's climate, will not reach the necessary ripeness at the harvesting stage. The ban will remain in place for an unlimited period.

Now one of the leading groups behind the ban, the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside, is urging its supporters to lobby members of the European Parliament to take up the campaign and obtain the right for every region and country in Europe to refuse the import and trading of GMOs. A resolution in favor of a European-wide ban on genetically modified food, seeds and fodder has been drafted by four members of the parliament, including Janusz Czeslaw Wojciechowski, vice-chairman of its agriculture committee.

So far, it has obtained 125 signatures, but a total of 350 members must sign by June 13 for the initiative to stand any chance of success.

"If members of the parliament don't or won't act now, the European Commission will be handed a further excuse to force GMO food on European citizens and GM seeds into our agricultural markets," said Julian Rose, ICPPC's director.

European reservations about biotechnology have surfaced again in plans for a seminar on the patenting of biotechnological inventions, to be held in Vienna May 29-30. The meeting is to assess the implementation of the EU's 1998 rules in the area, and with particular emphasis on the ethical dimension. The Austrian Presidency, which is organizing the meeting, said it plans to promote "an interdisciplinary dialogue" on the patenting of genes and gene sequences, and envisages "widening the spectrum of the debate and identifying perspectives for the future."

The biotech patents directive still has not been implemented in all EU member states, in the face of national resistance to biotechnology - including in Austria. Industry executives are not expecting strong endorsement for biotech patents from the conference, particularly since Austria is underlining that the background to the conference is that "a series of ethical concerns have not yet been definitively resolved."

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