BRUSSELS, Belgium - The precautionary principle must apply in full to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), says the European Union's Economic and Social Committee (ESC). With this ringing endorsement of the EU's wait-and-see attitude on biotechnology regulation, the ESC, a consultative body of employers, trade unions and other interest groups, has thrown its weight behind the growing anxiety over biotechnology. The ESC's view is expressed in an opinion it adopted in late July in the European Commission's discussion paper on environmental liability.

Consideration should be given to developments "whose possible impact has still to be predicted, such as the extensive use of GMOs, which is currently meeting stiff opposition in civil society," says the committee. Noting that the relevant EU legislation is currently being reviewed, it points out that "in some member states, some strands of opinion are calling for a moratorium on the use of GMOs until they have been scientifically proven to be harmless for human health and the environment."

The committee also notes out that national laws on environmental liability differ greatly among the 15 EU member states, and some countries still have no legislation on the subject, all of which makes it difficult to address environmental problems effectively. "The liability regime for damage to the environment and to biodiversity urgently needs to be clarified, as is clear from the recent cases of farmers who found themselves unwittingly using genetically modified seed," says the committee. And the EU's current plans for environmental liability for damage due to biodiversity "could be improved," it argues. It says the current review of the EU general legislation on biotechnology "will be a particularly delicate matter." - Peter O'Donnell

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