PARIS - France's Council of State, the supreme arbiter on the validity of government decisions, has been asked to revoke the order issued by the Ministry of Agriculture in February 1998 that added three varieties of transgenic corn produced by the Swiss company Novartis to the official catalogue of seeds that can be grown in France.

The abrogation is being sought by the French environmental pressure group Ecoropa in conjunction with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the French Peasants' Confederation.

The Council of State gave an interim ruling on the issue in September 1998, when it temporarily suspended the order. Its definitive ruling is due to be handed down within the next few weeks.

One of the main points made by the environmental lobby is that transgenic corn varieties were authorized for a limited period of three years instead of the normal 10-year term granted to conventional crops. This is true not only of the three Novartis varieties covered by the current procedure, but also of another 12 varieties of transgenic corn produced by both Novartis and Monsanto that were placed on the official list in August 1998.

In the plaintiffs' view, there is a straightforward case to answer: If the Ministry of Agriculture was absolutely sure about the safety of these varieties, why did it limit the period of authorization to three years instead of the usual 10? And if it had doubts, why did it permit them to be planted even for a limited period? The three varieties of transgenic corn involved in the case currently under consideration by the Council of State all contain a gene resistant to the insecticide Bt, which is used to combat the corn borer, a pyralid butterfly whose caterpillar eats disastrously into corn crops.

The Agriculture Ministry's decisions in such matters are based on advice it receives from the Biomolecular Engineering Commission, the government-appointed body responsible for evaluating applications for all uses of genetically modified organisms, including for scientific and medical research. According to Ecoropa's lawyer, former Environment Minister Corinne Lepage, the "information provided [to the Commission] about the marker gene resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin included in the genetic construction of these corn varieties was incomplete." She also claims there were other irregularities in the Commission's consideration of the application.

However, the Council of State seems more concerned about the government's departure from its own norms concerning the authorization period. Moreover, its ruling is likely to be applied subsequently to the 12 varieties still on the market.

That said, the Council's decision will be of purely academic interest since no GM corn is being grown in France at present. As a spokesman for the General Association of Corn Producers told BioWorld International, "There is a de facto moratorium because there isn't a market for genetically modified corn at the moment. The Council will simply be ruling on a legal technicality that will not alter the basic situation." The key factor was consumers' rejection of genetically modified foods, he said. But the association still takes the view that European farmers will have to emulate their American counterparts sooner or later and that research into GM crops should be expedited if Europe is not to fall even further behind the U.S.

Seed companies in France do not seem to have thrown in the towel, however. They are currently waiting for the French authorities to process 41 outstanding applications for the approval of transgenic seeds containing either the Bt insecticide gene or a gene resistant to total herbicides such as Round-Up and Basta.

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