BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union authorized on May 19 the import of Syngenta AG's canned or fresh GM sweet corn, ending the five-year EU moratorium on new GMO approvals. The decision was welcomed by the industry as a useful first step, but was criticized by environmentalists.

The authorization of genetically modified Bt11 was delivered by senior EU officials, after disagreements among governments had exhausted member states' decision-making rights under the EU's authorization procedures.

The decision, valid for 10 years, was accompanied by labeling requirements. Any imports have a label stating the corn has been harvested from a genetically modified plant.

Grain from Bt11 has been authorized for import into Europe since 1998 and is used in the EU in feed and in derived food products such as maize oil, maize flour, sugar and syrup, as well as foods and soft drinks. An authorization for cultivation of Bt11 maize is pending.

David Byrne, the European commissioner for health and consumer protection, stressed that food safety was not an issue.

"GM sweet corn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world and has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize," he said.

The application was introduced in February 1999 in the Netherlands. Authorities there decided that Bt11 sweet maize was as safe as conventional sweet maize, and the EU Scientific Committee on Food subsequently endorsed that view. But there was opposition from France, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Austria and Portugal, which voted against authorization at a meeting of EU agriculture ministers in April.

EuropaBio, the European biotech industry lobby, described the decision as "a positive signal for Europe." Johan Vanhemelrijck, its secretary general, pointed out that it was no more than "the first step on the road to unblocking the approval process. We will have to wait to see whether further approvals, including those for cultivation, are forthcoming."

But Adrian Bebb, of Friends of the Earth-Europe, said the approval will "only harden consumer resistance," since EU member states "remain deeply divided over its safety." He went on to claim that "there is virtually no market for GM foods in Europe, as consumers have overwhelmingly rejected them," citing recent decisions by Monsanto Co. and Bayer AG to cut back GM work.

EU Ministers Falter On Patent

The plan to create a low-cost, quick-delivery patent in the European Union has run into trouble yet again. EU industry ministers failed on May 18 to agree on the proposals, which were backed by smaller biotechnology companies in Europe. The last chance for the new rules now is the June 17 summit of EU heads of government in Brussels.

Germany, France, Spain and Portugal voted against, and Italy, which is against patent applications being made in English only, abstained. Commenting after the meeting, European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, who has been pushing for the patent, called the vote a "fiasco" and said: "With regrettable regularity, a small number of member states have blocked this proposal by giving precedence to narrow, vested interests rather than the broader interests of boosting Europe's competitiveness by fostering research, development and innovation."

The failure came despite the fact that the same ministers at the same meeting put their names to a series of recommendations on boosting the competitiveness of the biotechnology sector as part of building Europe's technology.

But the ministers also backed calls for a better operating environment for the biotechnology sector, recognizing that Europe was under challenge from weak productivity growth, insufficient innovation and investment in R&D, and intensifying international competition and delocalization.

"Actions which boost competitiveness and innovation, entrepreneurship and small firms and increased investment in research in a barrier-free internal market, and which facilitate and encourage necessary structural change are now imperative," ministers said. They issued a call to "implement the legislative framework for GMOs and pharmaceuticals now in place and to implement intellectual property legislation where this has not yet been done."

Their recommendations made strange company with a report from officials that went before ministers at the meeting, and that pointed out crucial delays over the last year in creating the right climate for biotech.

"Disappointments included member states' lack of agreement on a Community Patent and the ongoing failure of many member states to implement agreed legislation to clarify intellectual property rights concerning biotechnology inventions," the report stated.