PARIS - In a surprise ruling, the Council of State, which is the final arbiter on new legislation passed in France, has frozen the Ministry of Agriculture's Feb. 5 order giving effect to the government's November 1997 decision to authorize cultivation of three varieties of genetically modified corn produced by Novartis AG.

The order was contested by Greenpeace and other environmental protection organizations, whose arguments were considered by the council to be “serious and of a kind to justify the cancellation of the disputed order.“

Postponing the application of the order is a temporary measure, pending the council's definitive decision on the fundamental issues, which it will make public in early December. It explained that it was taking this step as a precautionary measure, because of concerns about the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes. In particular, the council maintained that the agriculture ministry had conducted an “incomplete evaluation of the impact on public health of the ampicillin-resistant gene contained in the varieties of transgenic corn.“ Importing transgenic corn into France is still permitted.

Applies Only To Novartis' Transgenic Corn

According to the ecologists, the real significance of this ruling is the application of the principle of precaution, which they say is a first for the Council of State. The usual grounds on which it might overturn laws or government decisions relate to procedural irregularities. Moreover, that is how the Ministry of Agriculture chose to interpret this ruling. It issued a statement saying the measure had “nothing to do with the basic issues but with a possible procedural irregularity.“

But, taking the Council at its word, Pascal Brandys, president of the industry association France Biotech, observed, “If you're too cautious, you can never make progress.“

The suspension applies only to Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis' varieties of transgenic corn, an estimated 1,500 hectares of which have already been sown and are expected to yield some 20,000 tons this year. As well as being genetically modified to resist the pyralid caterpillar, the varieties contain a gene that is resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin, which in a laboratory environment can be transmitted into bacteria. The ecologists argue that it could escape into the natural environment, exacerbating the growing problem of infections that are resistant to common antibiotics.

The Council of State's ruling does not apply to a dozen other varieties of genetically modified corn produced by Monsanto and the German company AgrEvo GmbH, of Berlin, whose cultivation was authorized by the French government in July. On the same occasion, the government announced a two-year moratorium on a number of other transgenic plants, including rapeseed and beetroot, as well as the introduction of a stricter vigilance regime and of a tracking system for the whole transgenic plant production chain in France. (See BioWorld International, Aug. 5, 1998, p. 3.)

For the optimists, such as Novartis, the Council of State's decision to suspend rather than overturn the government's go-ahead for the cultivation of transgenic corn is viewed as a means of buying it time for an in-depth examination of the issues. Novartis says it is “confident about the judgment the Council of State will return on the fundamental issues.“

For his part, the president and CEO of the molecular farming company Meristem Therapeutics, Bertrand Mérot, told BioWorld International, “I fear it will result in a substantial loss of time for the development of this technology.“ Describing Greenpeace's action as “highly political,“ he said he was not sure the Council of State's final decision would be any different from its interim ruling. *

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