BRUSSELS, Belgium - European farmers and grain traders have added their voices to the growing chorus demanding clarification of European Union rules on genetically modified organisms.

At a late-October meeting of the EU's committee on oilseeds and protein crops used for animal feed, representatives of COCERAL, the European association of grain and feed traders, and of the EU committee of agricultural organizations, COPA, urged EU regulators to focus on priority biotechnology-related issues that need resolution.

Commission health officials said they were worried by recent cases of contamination of crops and food products with unauthorized GM material, and made clear they would be seeking to ensure harmonization of legislation and practice at the European level. Tests on imported soya, rape, maize, cotton, sugar beet and tomato seeds have been conducted, but often using differing methodology from country to country, and the Commission is now looking for an indication from the member states on how they propose to meet the challenges of seed sampling and testing methods.

The EU still needs to finalize its interim rules on GM contamination for conventional seeds, which currently permits a threshold of 0.5 percent for GM material authorized for use in the EU, and 0 percent where the material is unauthorized. The Commission plans modifications to these thresholds by the end of the year to take account of different plant species and the risks of cross pollination.

Farmers organizations in the EU emphasize Europe's heavy dependence on imported protein for animal nutrition, and want what they consider "reasonable," or less stringent, thresholds for the accidental contamination of animal feed. They claim that a 0 percent threshold is impracticable for unauthorized genetically modified material in imported seeds or seeds produced in field trials in the EU.

The EU still faces difficulties, because the basic EU legislation has not yet been updated. European Commission environment officials at the meeting pointed to major differences between the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers on the long-awaited update to the EU's basic 1990 directive on authorizing biotechnology products (Directive 90/220/EEC). Even though the Parliament recently withdrew 14 of the 29 calls for amendment it is seeking, divergences persist on issues ranging from environmental commitments and approval procedures for pharmaceutical products to the duration of authorizations and the establishment of an EU-wide register of products. Agreement is unlikely before 2001 - at the earliest - and member states will then have another 18 months to implement the new directive's provisions under national law. Pending resolution of the disagreements, 14 GM crop applications still are held up in the authorization pipeline.

There also is uncertainty over impending new rules on novel feed for animals. The Commission is conducting an internal consultation on a possible proposal, but cannot say when it will be formalized, because of the parallel EU discussions on traceability, on the update to Directive 90/220/EEC, and on bringing genetically modified seeds within the scope of EU rules on novel foods. But the Commission indicated it has no plans to require labeling for animals fed on genetically modified feed.

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