DUBLIN, Ireland - The Irish government has launched a public consultation process on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and environmental protection that will feed into a review of national policy. The Department of the Environment issued a consultation paper Monday to stimulate debate on the subject. The closing date for receipt of submissions is Sept. 30.

This process is taking place as the wider debate among European Union (EU) member states on the amendment of Directive 90/220, the key EU legislation on deliberate release of GMOs, gets under way. But a forthcoming legal ruling could also have major implications for Irish policy on GMO use. Due Oct. 6 is the outcome of a judicial review of the decision by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency to permit Monsanto Co., of St. Louis, to perform a field trial of genetically modified sugar beets. (See BioWorld International, July 15, 1998, p. 1.)

If Genetic Concern, the organization that instigated the case, is successful, the Irish legislation that transposes Directive 90/220 may have to be amended pending the adoption of the newer directive, which is not expected for some time.

Genetic Concern has criticized the tenor of the government consultation document, which states: “The area of Irish economic interest where biotechnology, particularly biotechnology/genetic modification, has greatest potential is in agriculture. New recombinant crops are already widely available and used successfully in all economic blocks other than Europe.“

Quentin Gargan, spokesman for the group, said officials “have shifted enormously from their previous position.“ During the general election campaign last year, the current environment minister, Noel Dempsey, and the current agriculture minister, Joe Walsh, both of whom were then in opposition, issued a controversial policy statement on biotechnology in agriculture. “It is our position that it is premature to release genetically modified organisms into the environment or to market foods which contain any genetically modified ingredients or where genetically modified organisms have been used in the production of food,“ they said.

Most observers here have interpreted that stance as a piece of electioneering. Since assuming office, Dempsey has kept a very low profile on the whole area of GMOs in agriculture, despite growing public interest in the topic.

Industry observers regard the government as being supportive of biotechnology, although the state has not committed significant resources to developing the sector. Matt Moran, director of the Irish Bio-Industries Association (IBIA), said his organization welcomes publication of the consultation document. Policy on GMO use “should be based on science, not on political premises,“ Moran said. In addition, his organization wants government to become more involved in public communication of biotechnology, independent of industry and vested interests.

The IBIA is about to submit its own policy paper on all aspects of biotechnology to the government, which will urge it to adopt a more proactive stance on developing the sector. “Unless Ireland starts to put a plan in place to have a sector, we're in danger of being passed by other countries,“ Moran said. *