BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Parliament's influential environment and public health committee has thrown its weight behind the growing pressure within the European Union (EU) for tougher controls on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The panel is calling for a moratorium on the authorization of all new varieties of genetically modified crops, and its chairman, Euro-MP Ken Collins, is writing to European Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard to seek a temporary ban. And the committee has expressed sympathy with Austria and Luxembourg, the two EU member states that are defying the commission and refusing to lift unilateral bans on genetically modified crops. It is urging the commission not to take legal action against the two countries for their stand.

At the same time, David Bowe, the Euro-MP who is preparing a report for the Parliament on possible changes to the EU rules on the release of genetically modified organisms, has been saying there should be a moratorium pending the Parliament's review. It makes no sense, he said last week, for the EU's different institutions to be making variant decisions "piecemeal." Meanwhile, the EU's scientific committee on plants has raised questions about an application by the Dutch firm Avebe for authorization of a genetically modified potato, saying it has "serious doubts" about the product's safety because its implications for humans, animals and the environment have not been fully assessed.

The 15-member committee of independent academics does not have final say, but the European Commission bases its decisions on the committee's inputs. This is the first time the committee has objected to an application for a genetically modified product. Until now, the committee had handed down 11 favorable opinions.

Against this background, the commission itself is starting to give signals that it may have to ease up on its crusading zeal in requiring full compliance with EU law from member states — an unprecedented development in the European Union's history. Officials have spoken of the need to "reevaluate" the situation, about being "creative" and about making room to maneuver. But the European biotechnology industry is firmly resisting any such concessions. A moratorium would be "unacceptable," said EuropaBio, the industry's lobbying organization, which is insisting on the need for legality to be observed.

At the same time, the commission is faced with another problem with genetically modified foodstuffs. An EU regulation adopted in May requires that food and food ingredients derived from certain maize or soy be labeled, in particular when genetically modified DNA or protein can be found. The regulation came into force on Sept. 1, but the commission has not yet completed a number of tasks that the regulation provides for — particularly setting up agreed European methods for scientific evaluation, establishing minimum levels of DNA or protein derived from genetically modified organisms, and drafting a list of products on which labeling is required.

Possible Labeling Exemptions Studied

The commission answered recent European Parliament questions on progress with the observation that a list of products "which do not have to be labeled, because they contain neither modified DNA nor protein, would facilitate labeling decisions." But so far, it said, there are only "first suggestions" from EU member states about which products should be on this negative list, which the commission's scientific committee on foodstuffs is now examining.

The commission also said it is in "close collaboration" with member states to study the feasibility of agreement on a threshold below which there would be no obligation to label. "Such a threshold could help to avoid foods or food ingredients having to be labeled even though producers took every reasonable precaution not to use genetically modified products," the commission said. It admits, however, there will still be difficulties, owing to the lack of an agreed threshold level for adventitious contamination.

Meanwhile, the European Commission said the U.K.'s University of Sussex has won a competitive call for tenders to conduct a study titled "Benchmarking Innovation in Modern Biotechnology: Pharmaceutical and Agro-Food Applications." The study is intended to help identify the essential factors for achieving successful innovation, thus boosting competitiveness. The university won over 13 other bids, with a tender of about US$90,000. *