BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - The French government finally drafted a bill to provide a legal framework for research, production and marketing of genetically modified organisms, which is designed to transpose into French legislation two European Union directives dating back to the 1990s.

France has been summoned by the European Commission on numerous occasions to transpose the directives, which was supposed to have been done by 1999. The Commission recently put its foot down and imposed a daily fine of €168,000 for every day France failed to pass the necessary legislation. The fine does not become applicable until autumn, however, when the commission ruling is published officially, which gives French legislators a little breathing room.

France has been reluctant to come into line, as the government is aware that the French public generally is hostile to genetic modification. A recent opinion poll confirmed that impression, finding that 78 percent of people wanted a temporary ban on GM organisms in order to evaluate the precise health and environmental implications. On the other hand, the French research minister, François Goulard, who is responsible for piloting the new legislation through parliament, reiterated recently that "our country does not have the right to deprive itself of genetic engineering, which is an extraordinary potential source of progress."

One of the EU directives covers the use of GM microorganisms for the production of medicines, while the other lays down the rules for research into and production of GM crops and for the coexistence between conventional, biological and transgenic crops. The transposition of the directives into France’s national legislation will have only a marginal impact, since it has been legal to plant approved varieties of GM crops since 1998, and more than 500 hectares have been planted in France this year, mostly of GM corn. But the new law will bring French practice into line with European regulations, especially regarding the coexistence of GM and other crops.

Once the new bill is passed, French farmers will face a legal requirement to notify the authorities of where GM crops are planted, ensure the traceability of the products resulting from them, and make a financial deposit that would be used to compensate any neighboring farmers whose fields may reveal a rate of GM contamination above the 0.9 percent threshold beyond which products have to be labeled as containing GM organisms.

The French bill also creates a Biotechnology Council, which will be composed of a "scientific section" and an "economic and social section." That body will be responsible for vetting future applications for full-field GM crop plantings, "evaluating the risks to health and the environment" and overseeing the biological surveillance of French territory.

While opponents of the bill, led by the French peasant farmers’ association, the Confédération Paysanne, have condemned it as "iniquitous," saying it opens the way to an "uncontrolled proliferation of GMOs," Goulard insisted that, on the contrary, "it is a precautionary law that puts in place a very tight protection system while not closing the door to the advances of research."