BRUSSELS, Belgium - Demonstrations by French farmers against biotechnology monopolies and European Parliament questions on how effectively the European Union (EU) can prevent accidental release onto the market of genetically engineered crops are just two of the latest examples in a growing wave of concern over the direction of biotechnology in Europe.

The concerns about accidental release were raised after two tons of Monsanto's genetically modified sugar beets from field trials in the Netherlands were mixed with conventional crops and entered the food chain as refined sugar via the Dutch Co-operative Sugar Company. The product had not been approved for marketing for any purpose.

Leading Green Euro-MP Hiltrud Breyer was quick to seize on the case. How could this happen? she asked. How were controls breached and how can a reoccurrence be prevented?

EU Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard was obliged to admit there had been a slip-up. She confirmed the release - which led to the product entering the food chain, with the pulp being used as animal feed - had EU approval for research and development purposes only.

Bjerregaard tried to lay the blame at the door of the Dutch authorities. It is up to individual European member states to police their control mechanisms, she said. Accordingly, it is up to them to decide whether they need to institute any new controls to avoid breaching EU legislation.

Meanwhile, an important French farmers' movement, Conféderation Paysanne (peasants' grouping), has been campaigning to halt the introduction of genetically altered corn into French farming. Last week saw wide support given to a “citizens' conference“ it organized in the French parliament with the support of five other environmental groups.

The confederation claims the products have been insufficiently tested and threaten small farmers, who will be made dependent on suppliers that monopolize the provision of both seeds and pesticides.

Against this background, one of Europe's most redoubtable biotechnology apologists has reentered the public fray to defend the merits of the technology.

Mark Cantley, who was one of the European Commission's leading officials in biotechnology in the 1980s and is now a senior official with the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, denounced calls for more controls on biotechnology. *