BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union took firm action last week to defend its concept of a single market for genetically modified organisms. It rejected an Austrian request for permission to ban the use of GMOs in the region of Upper Austria for a three-year period.

The regional government presented its request as a measure to provide protection from GMO hybridization of organic and traditional agricultural production and local plant and animal genetic resources. As long as the issue of co-existence between GM and non-GM methods of agricultural production is not fully resolved, it argued, a ban was justified.

But the European Commission, in its role of guardian of the EU rules, decided there was no new scientific evidence and no local considerations to justify such a request. Since Austria put in its request earlier this year, the Commission and the scientific committee of the newly established European Food Safety Authority had studied the matter. But, as Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said in announcing the decision, "The Commission can only reject the Austrian request."

EU biotechnology rules do allow for exemptions under certain strict conditions, including the emergence of new scientific evidence, and the existence of particular country-specific conditions. But the country seeking an exemption has to prove the merits of its case, and on this occasion Austria failed to do so.

In addition, the Commission pointed out, it had addressed the issue of co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic farming as recently as July, when it recommended dealing with the risks at the level of individual farms.

The decision was immediately welcomed by EuropaBio, the European biotechnology industry association, as helping to defend choice for farmers. "No one should have the right to deny farmers access to the full range of tools and technologies to fight pests and disease in their crops," said Simon Barber, director of the Plant Biotechnology unit of EuropaBio.