BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The unofficial European Union moratorium on new GMO products gradually is being eroded. Within some three months, another five products are likely to overcome the bans that five national governments have placed on them.

The products concerned are Bayer AG's GM maize T25 and Monsanto Co.'s MON810, banned in Austria; Syngenta AG's GM maize Bt176, banned in Austria, Germany and Luxembourg; and Bayer's oilseed rape varieties, MS1xRF1, banned in France, and Topas 19/2, banned in France and Greece. All of them have been authorized via the formal EU procedure, and should already be on the market throughout the EU.

But national procedures still are being used to prevent their launch. For more than five years, several member states have been imposing a de facto embargo on biotechnology products, in defiance of EU legislation. And in the World Trade Organization, the U.S., Argentina and Canada are claiming that Europe's precautionary stance is a barrier to free trade and harms their farmers.

A meeting of the EU committee that was supposed to give a final ruling ended in stalemate on those five products at the end of November. As a result, the discussion now will be taken up at the ministerial level in the EU Council. If the council, too, fails to reach a clear decision within three months (and so far it has failed to do so in all such cases), senior officials in the EU Commission then will be entitled to overrule the bans.

But while biotechnology industry executives in Europe are quietly optimistic that persistence by EU officials gradually is winning out, the commission's approach continues to infuriate opponents of biotechnology. Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) described the commission position as "deeply unpopular and clearly undemocratic." Member Adrian Bebb said the commission should "start fighting for the right of countries to ban genetically modified foods instead of caving in to the pressure of the World Trade Organization and the Bush administration." A new report from FoEE also heavily criticizes the new European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which started work earlier this year, accusing it of industry bias.

"Virtually all of the 12 EFSA opinions on GMOs produced so far have been favorable to the biotechnology industry," it said.

Meanwhile, new research from the UK claims that coexistence of GM and non-GM crops - frequently presented by biotechnology opponents in Europe as carrying an unacceptable risk of contamination - is not a problem. Graham Brookes, of the agricultural consultancy PGEconomics, who co-authored the study, said, "All you need for coexistence of GM and non-GM maize is four buffer rows or several metres separation distance between crops. This contrasts with impractical and disproportionate maize coexistence rules being put forward in some member states."