BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Renewed controversy over GM crops has been stirred by a European Union conference on coexistence being held in Vienna this week.

Even before the meeting opened April 4, the European biotechnology industry launched an attack on what it saw as a slanted agenda that is hostile to technology. But environmental activists claimed that the conference agenda proved that the EU "is only listening to industry whilst ignoring European law and the majority of the public."

Billed as a chance to exchange views and plot the right way forward, the conference is bringing together scientists, farmers, consumers, seed producers, importers, processors and policy-makers under the title "Coexistence of Genetically Modified, Conventional and Organic Crops - Freedom of Choice."

EuropaBio, the industry lobby, said the program precludes any prospect of freedom of choice for farmers or consumers.

"Thousands of European farmers grew GMOs last year, successfully coexisting with their neighbors - yet they were not invited to present their practical experience.

And in the last three years alone, "independent, scientific studies on coexistence have been conducted in six European countries - yet those scientists with field experience were not invited to present their findings," it said. "Farmers who requested a platform to speak were denied the opportunity," claimed Simon Barber, of EuropaBio.

The 25 EU member states are developing their national approaches on how to regulate neighboring fields of GM and conventional crops, and there are wide variations between countries.

If they fail to adopt sensible and realistic measures, "EU agriculture risks becoming a technological backwater and an international laughing stock," warned a UK supply chain group on the eve of the conference. SCIMAC, which represents plant breeders, seed merchants, farmers and grain handlers, said EU member states, "have blatantly sought to use coexistence arrangements as a political barrier to the development of GM crop technology." It said it is time "to cut through the campaigning rhetoric and propaganda."

But Friends of the Earth Europe said that GM crops "can only be grown in Europe if contamination of organic and conventional foods are permitted."

The environmental group is seething over what it sees as the EU refusal to accept that organic and conventional farming have the right to remain GMO-free. It says that EU plans for "coexistence" rules to allow up to 0.9 percent GM contamination of conventional and organic crops are a denial of a genuine choice to consumers and farmers, and will lead to genetic contamination creeping inevitably upward.

"Freedom of choice for whom?" asked Helen Holder, GMO campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. "The commission is listening to the biotech industry and not its member states and citizens"

EU Regulates Conditional Marketing Authorizations

The European Union's new rules on conditional marketing authorizations for life-saving medicines became official April 1. The proposed regulation had been welcomed by the Emerging Biopharmaceutical Enterprises (EBE) group, representing 50 European biopharmaceutical companies.

"This will be an important additional tool in giving patients timely access to much-needed medicines, particularly for serious and life-threatening diseases for which no treatments yet exist. Many of Europe's biopharmaceutical companies are working on developing treatments in these fields, and the possibility is of strong interest to them," EBE said.

The final text of the regulation makes clear that to meet unmet medical needs of patients, "it may be necessary to grant marketing authorizations on the basis of less complete data than is normally the case and subject to specific obligations."

Although the data required may be less complete, the risk-benefit balance should be positive, the new rule said.

The benefits to public health of making the medicine available immediately should also outweigh the risk inherent in the absence of important data, it said.