BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union's Scientific Committee on Plants has rejected the Austrian government's reasoning for banning a genetically modified maize. Austria is one of the EU governments that has been most energetic in defying EU rulings on what GM products may be marketed.

The maize - maize line T25, from Agrevo France (now Aventis Cropscience) - was authorized in 1998 through the EU procedures that are designed to provide EU-wide market access. This is the second such Austrian objection that has been overruled this year by the EU's own scientific committees. However, the EU has not yet been able to enforce the rulings of its experts since its powers to require Austria to comply are limited.

The EU committee published its opinion on Monday on Austria's invocation of the safeguard clause of the EU rules on GMO authorizations (Council Directive 90/220). The committee said it examined the submitted information, and found that it does not provide new scientific data to change the original risk assessment carried out in 1998, which formed the basis of the EU-wide authorization for cultivation. Austria had argued the maize would pose a problem to the ecology of the Alpine grassland and meadow systems.

The committee said in particular that there is no evidence to support this argument.

The T25 maize line is transformed to express the pat gene from Streptomyces viridochromogenes that encodes phosphinothricin acetyltransferase, or PAT. This enzyme inactivates glufosinate ammonium, and consequently confers an increased tolerance of the post-emergence herbicide to the maize plants. The committee had been asked to decide if the information submitted by Austria constituted relevant scientific evidence that the product is a risk to human health and the environment.

Austria formally challenged the authorization in May 2000 with a national decree to prohibit the product within its territory on the grounds that the maize line T25 had not been examined under realistic conditions of use of glufosinate and that no monitoring program was foreseen. Most of the Austrian evidence was a study on concepts of GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas, which, the committee decided, "does not contain any new scientific information which is relevant," and merely argues for the establishment of GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas and summarizes surveyed opinions of people who may be confronted professionally with any environmental effects of the release of GMOs.

The committee decided that maize has no closely related species in Europe and the probability of genetic transfer of the herbicide tolerance trait to other wild species is remote. It said there is no biodiversity issue.