BRUSSELS, Belgium - Some tangible results were achieved at the first meeting in the conciliation procedure to finalize new European Union rules on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.

The Nov. 8 meeting, arranged to find common ground between the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, reached agreement on about half the 29 points of difference between the two sides in the discussions on how to update the EU's 1990 directive, which covers both research and placing products on the market.

EU ministers are now ready to accept Parliament's insistence on adequate liability coverage for GMOs as a key issue, and has agreed that the European Commission should propose new environmental liability legislation before the end of 2001 to cover different types of environmental damage, including damage by GMOs. Other key areas of emerging consensus include the phasing out of antibiotic resistance markers by Dec. 31, 2004 for GMOs placed on the market as products, and by Dec. 31, 2008 (subject to confirmation by EU governments) for GMOs released for experimental purposes.

Council representatives also conceded in the interests of procedural transparency that if information is available about possible risks to human health and the environment, the public should be informed, and should also be told of any action taken by national authorities to modify the conditions of the release of the GMO. But by early December, agreement still has to be reached on other crucial issues, including whether medical substances for human use should be covered by the directive (or merely subject to EU rules on pharmaceuticals, as industry hopes); how the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is to be included in the text of the directive, particularly in respect to exported GMOs; and rules on public registers on the location of any GMOs being grown. If agreement is reached, "It may be a Christmas present for the struggling EU biotech industries," according to Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research.