BRUSSELS, Belgium In February, the European Parliament will hold a major debate at its plenary session on the new European rules for biotechnology. The discussions will be tough, as the preparatory committee session talks over recent days have demonstrated. In those talks, 188 amendments to the proposal were discussed.

The parliament is almost at the final stage of its first reading of proposals to modify Directive 90/220, the basic 1990 European Union (EU) rules on releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. It is these rules which, for instance, have led to much of the current confusion in Europe over marketing of genetically modified crops. They are widely recognized as in need of updating, but opinions are sharply divided over whether the updating should make them more liberal or more restrictive.

On Jan. 2, the parliament¿s Committee on Environ ment, Public Health and Consumer Protection adopted the draft report, which will go to the parliament¿s plenary session in Strasbourg the week of Feb. 8-12. The report, drafted by U.K. socialist Euro-MP David Bowe, failed to convince all the members of the committee. Almost half of them abstained altogether from the vote. Some members abstained because they thought the report went too far in the direction of caution, and thus might hamper the development of this new technology. But others abstained because they thought it was not cautious enough, and so might jeopardize public health.

Safety First¿ Urged On GMOs

Among the amendments adopted by the committee, one would oblige EU authorities and the governments of the 15 EU member states to adopt the precautionary principle (that is, unconditional priority to a ¿safety first¿ approach), so as to avoid adverse effects on human health or the environment from the deliberate release of GMOs.

Another amendment excludes human beings from the definition of organisms that can be genetically modified. Yet another requires the establishment of a certification system to ensure that GMOs placed on the market can be subsequently traced.

The draft report from the committee says that those legally responsible for the deliberate release of GMOs should have full civil and criminal liability for any resulting damage to human health or the environment. And ultimately, it says, a more general EU-wide environment liability law should be introduced. The committee also says the export of GMOs from the EU should be dependent on export authorization from the competent member state authority and import consent from the country of destination.

Commission May Modify Proposal

Bowe recognized the sensitivity of the subject when he presented his draft report to the committee. GMOs, in particular their use in food crops, have been the focus of intense public debate throughout the EU, he observed. ¿In the U.K., groups of environmental activists have torn up fields of experimental releases, whilst in Austria, there was a mass public petition against GMO crops. On the one hand, industry argues that GM crops pose little risk and present enormous potential benefits. On the other hand, environmentalists point to a perceived lack of knowledge and understanding of the risks, and to possible developments such as the creation of super weeds¿ and the passing of antibiotic resistance through the food chain. Furthermore, consumers have complained that GM products have been forced upon them, and that the labeling system is not transparent and hampers choice.¿

The proposal is also under discussion by the EU member states in the EU Council of Ministers. When the parliament has completed its first reading, the European Commission may modify its proposal in light of the amendments the parliament calls for. Then, a second reading will take place probably later this year which will be based on the view reached by the Council of Ministers and any changes by the European Commission. At that point, a final EU decision is expected, and the member states will have to amend their national legislation accordingly. n