BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union's top official admitted Jan. 28 that it was time to lift the unofficial European moratorium on new genetically modified products. European Commission President Romano Prodi said the EU now had an impeccable set of controls in place - and no new products to exercise them on. To demonstrate he meant what he said, he persuaded his commission colleagues to approve a proposal to authorize a GM sweet corn - BT11 - for food use.

Only 18 GMOs so far have been approved in the EU under the general biotechnology rules, and products from 15 GMOs can legally be marketed in the EU under rules on GM food and feed. Meanwhile, 22 applications are stuck in the EU pipeline. No authorizations have been granted since October 1998. In June, the U.S. issued a legal challenge to the EU over its refusal to approve new GM products for the past five years.

Prodi said: "The EU has put in place a clear, transparent and stringent system to regulate genetically modified food, feed and plants. Our legislation ensures that GMOs authorized in the EU are safe for human consumption and for the release into the environment. Clear labeling rules allow farmers to choose what to plant and consumers to choose what to buy."

The BT11 application will now have to be discussed by EU member state ministers in the European Council of Ministers - the body that has maintained the EU moratorium on new GM products for some five years now.

Also on Jan. 28, the commission recommended that an authorization be granted on a GM maize product, NK603, which will go before member states in a special committee during February.

In a review of EU rules and policies on biotechnology, Prodi and his colleagues decided last week to start checking the safeguard measures on GMOs, which some member states have adopted. National safeguard measures in Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece and the UK continue to freeze out GM products already authorized at EU level.

"Member states have been officially requested to withdraw these measures and to lift their restrictions," Prodi said. He also insisted that no member state would be justified in trying to handle the coexistence debate by imposing a blanket ban on GM crops.

However, European biotechnology industry executives pointed out that Prodi will be leaving his job before the end of the year, and that the real power still remains with the EU's member state governments. The decision Monday by Belgium to turn down an application to grow GM colza is, industry figures said, a more compelling demonstration of what the biotechnology industry can expect from the EU. And France said last year that it was "not happy" with the BT11 dossier, and is widely expected to continue to protest.

More EU Help For Biotech Start-ups

The European Union will next month launch a series of 30 three-day workshops to boost the creation of new biotech companies under the title "Biobiz." Funded by the EU's 2002-2006 research program, Biobiz aims at giving European scientists knowledge and tools to create new companies in the life science and biotechnology sector. The training courses, to be run during the next three years across Europe, focus on access to capital, technology transfer, business plans, business-related regulation and business incubators. Beginning in March, the first workshops will take place in the UK, Germany and France, although two will take place in the U.S., targeting EU researchers working there who might consider coming back to Europe.

Biotech Food Research Wins New Funding

The European Union announced grants of €17 million for an international research project to boost the role of biotechnology in European agro-food research. The European Nutrigenomics Organisation is meant to integrate genomics, nutrition and health. Its work, bringing together 22 research institutes across 10 European countries, is expected to enable nutrition research to complement the biomedical and pharmacological research communities that are using genomics for the development of curative therapy, the EU said.

A principal objective will be the development, data warehousing and exploitation of nutrition and health-related bioinformatics. The EU's research program also is aiming to provide new support for work on traceability of food, including GMOs. And the European Commission has also announced support for European research into plant genomics, which sees some €80 million of investment each year. Coordinating national research programs is to receive €2.2 million in EU funding, to help pool resources more efficiently. But, the EU said, research programs "must address consumer fears and arguments about possible environmental danger vs. the agricultural advantages of plant genomics."

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