BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The combative foreign trade commissioner of the European Union (EU), Sir Leon Brittan, believes that next year's round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks could help ease some of the strains on biotechnology that have been created by recent controversy over the marketing of foods using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Speaking in Oxford, Brittan said the new round -- the follow-up to the Uruguay Round under the WTO's forerunner, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- should take biotechnology on board, among "a whole raft of relatively new issues which are not generally included under the traditional themes for trade negotiations, but which nevertheless have an important effect on trade, and which are likely to dominate our agendas more and more in the years ahead."

According to Brittan, standards need to be dealt with for health and safety; animal welfare; biotechnology; labeling; consumer information; and the relationship between trade and environment. "Where we will get to in these issues is far from clear," he said, because consumer groups, environmentalists and animal welfare activists are already unhappy that existing rules are too permissive. "These issues in fact matter more to the general public than import duties and subsidies, and in one way or another the WTO will have to address them," he said.

Against the background of widespread consumer skepticism and growing risks of an EU-U.S. trade dispute over imports of soya and grain using GMOs, the commissioner was optimistic. "Nearly all these concerns can be addressed by giving the individual consumer a choice, and by providing information about the background of the product through labeling or other information schemes," he said. He insisted the choice of whether to consume such products should be left to the public.

EU environment ministers were unable to make much progress on resolving the many internal disputes over biotechnology at their last Environment Council meeting before the end of 1998, on Dec. 21. On current efforts to update EU rules related to marketing biotechnology products, ministers are blocked, because the European Parliament has still not completed its first reading of the proposed new rules. European Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard publicly expressed regret over the slow pace at which the European Parliament is moving. She said it was urgent to move forward with revisions of the 1990 directive in order to break some of the deadlocks and clear up current uncertainties.

EU member states that are continuing to restrict authorized GMO foods at the national level offered no concessions. But Austrian Environment Minister Martin Bartenstein, presiding over his last Environment Council (Germany takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the EU at the start of 1999), said there was consensus on the merits of guaranteeing "complete transparency so consumers know where they stand." This means, he said, general agreement on the need for GMO-containing products to be clearly labeled as such as soon as the level of GMOs exceeds a certain extremely low limit, which would be set at the level of the "inevitable residues" -- but he did not specify any percentage figure.

An outline agreement was also reached on the period of validity for authorizations for placing biotechnology products on the market, according to Bartenstein, who said the new limit would be a maximum of 12 years. In a bid to be more sensitive to public concerns, several member states raised the possibility of a moratorium on new agricultural product introductions (France, the U.K. and Denmark are already moving in this direction), but any formal action would have to be proposed by the European Commission, which has so far shown no interest in such an approach. *