BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ The European Union has ducked another challenge in its attempts to regulate biotechnology products ¿ and delighted anti-biotechnology campaigners by so doing.

Last Thursday, an EU expert committee declined to vote on the applications for marketing of three new varieties of genetically modified crops. This is the second time this committee ¿ which was set up expressly to decide on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment ¿ has put off its decision to authorize the two oil rapeseed varieties and a fodder beet. It claimed that the applicants had supplied insufficient information.

The three varieties submitted for marketing authorization are a genetically modified variety of rapeseed tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium from the German company Hoechst Schering AgrEvo; a transgenic rape submitted by the Ghent, Belgium, company Plant Genetic Systems; and a genetically engineered fodder beet notified by the Danish companies DLF Trifolium and Danisco Seed Denmark. To win authorization, they need 62 votes out of the total 87 votes of the committee.

Since March 1998, no genetically modified plants have been approved by the committee according to this voting procedure. In June, EU member states informally agreed to a moratorium pending the introduction of a new authorization procedure for GMOs. Several member states ¿ notably France and Austria ¿ have decided to block any further approval of GMOs until the EU brings in stricter rules on traceability and labeling. Others have also demanded stricter safety criteria. In theory, a member state can ban the marketing of a GMO for only three months, after which the European Commission and the expert committee must decide whether the ban can be extended. But prohibitions imposed in February 1997 by Austria and Luxembourg on genetically modified Bt maize developed by Novartis are still in place, because the commission has yet to secure backing for lifting the ban from the committee and the 15 member states meeting as the Council of Ministers.

The environmental protection organization Friends of the Earth welcomed the committee¿s decision. It is urging that no further market approvals should be granted under the current system, and that much stricter rules should be introduced under the revised system that is now under discussion. ¿This is a welcome result as far as the environment and European consumers are concerned,¿ said Gui Lacroix, biotechnology campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. ¿Oilseed rape and beet are both species which are native to Europe. The fact that the regulatory committee has once again failed to approve these GM crops is a boost in the battle to stop GMO pollution of Europe¿s fields and food.¿