BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium The pressure on the European Union to keep a tight rein on biotechnology development took a different and more personal form on Monday, when American farmers visited the European Parliament to urge the EU to maintain its veto on authorization of new genetically modified organisms.

The farmers, who say they are victims of contamination by GM crops, warned the European Union against giving up its moratorium on genetically modified organisms. Percy Schmeiser, from Saskatoon, Canada, and Tom and Gail Wiley, from North Dakota, said they had been adversely affected by GMOs, although they do not grow GM crops, and had suffered severe financial penalties.

Schmeiser’s oilseed rape crop was found to be contaminated with patented genes, and the patent holder, Monsanto Canada, successfully sued him for illegally using its patented invention. The Wileys lost contracts to sell identity-preserved soya because their crop of conventional soya beans was found to be unknowingly contaminated with GM soya.

During the debate, hosted by the Green group in the Parliament, Schmeiser said: “What the EU must realize is that there is no such thing as containment of GMOs more than there is such a thing as co-existence between GM crops and conventional or organic due to cross pollination. If the EU will allow GMOs to be grown and marketed in Europe, it will lose the biodiversity that it may now have, because the GM gene will dominate the others. This is what happened in Canada. It is also a myth that farmers use less chemicals after converting to GM crops. They become dependent on chemicals supplied by the seed supplier.”

Euro-MP Jill Evans, who chaired the meeting, said, “This is a bizarre situation. Everybody would expect that conventional or organic farmers whose harvest has been contaminated by GMOs should be able to claim compensation for any financial losses they suffer. In fact, the legal situation seems to be quite different.”

Paul Lannoye, a leading member of the Parliament’s Green group, said, “We urgently need legally binding measures which effectively prevent GM contamination and therefore ensure the consumers’ and the operators’ freedom of choice, i.e., the freedom not to use GMOs. Moreover, the example of Monsanto’s action against Percy Schmeiser shows once again that patent law simply does not fit when it comes to living organisms.”

(Figures just released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications estimate the global area of GM crops in 2001 at 52.6 million hectares, grown by 5.5 million farmers in 13 countries, mainly the U.S., Argentina, Canada and China. This is an increase in area of 19 percent from 2000, and continues the trend since 1996, when GM crops covered only 1.7 million hectares.)

But at the same time, the U.S. government is continuing to push the EU to relax its ban on new authorizations. Its comments to the World Trade Organization argue for an EU system that would not be vulnerable to national vetoes. The U.S. comments say the “core problem facing the European Union in biotechnology” is the fact that EU member states have the final say in the authorization procedure, and will continue to under currently projected changes to EU rules.

The U.S. administration would like the moratorium to be lifted following the EU’s March 15-16 summit in Barcelona, Spain. The U.S. also has attacked as too restrictive the EU’s recent package of proposals for tighter labeling and traceability rules, which is part of the EU attempt to ease environmentalist opposition to GM products. In its comments to the EU, the U.S. says the proposal “does nothing to ensure food safety,” “encourages fraudulent labeling claims” and “would undermine consumer confidence.”

Friends of the Earth sees the U.S. government stance as part of a concerted campaign to open up the world market for GM products.

There are indications that the European Union is aiming to give a further boost to biotechnology. The preparatory papers for the EU’s impending Barcelona summit include strongly supportive comments about biotechnology, and call for a new action plan.

As part of the preparations, the European Commission is expected to agree within days on a new strategy to address the specific obstacles and opportunities for life sciences and biotechnology, including competitiveness and innovation, research, the regulatory environment, the international context, the involvement of the public, and ethical issues. The strategy will include a draft action plan, for which endorsement will be sought by EU leaders in Barcelona.