MEPs open door to lifting GMO licensing moratorium

by Brian Kenety

Brussels, 14 Feb 2001 (IPS) -- The European Parliament Wednesday voted to impose tougher rules on the release and monitoring of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but in doing so have also taken an important step towards lifting the European Union’s (EU) three-year moratorium on the licensing of new biotech products.

The proposal, adopted at its third reading at a plenary session in Strasbourg by a vote of 338 to 52 with 85 abstentions, introduces mandatory monitoring after GMO products are placed on the EU market and a mandatory maximum time limit of 10 years for first-time release.

The new deal would allow licenses to be granted, once a firm has provided a risk assessment and demonstrates that it can carry out continuous monitoring of any possible dangers. The new rules will not go into place until formally adopted by the Council of Ministers, which may take up to 18 months.

At the second reading, the Parliament had asked for public registers of GMOs released both for research and commercial purposes. This point remained difficult to resolve within both Parliament and Council.  British experience showed the potential for conflicts with such registers.

It was finally agreed that GMOs released in the trial period should be registered and details made available to the public. As regards the release of GMOs for commercial purposes, their locations will have to be released to the competent authorities and made known to the public in a manner deemed appropriate by the authorities.

The proposal, authored by British Socialist Member David Bowe, also seeks to improve the decision-making process, to “promote harmonisation of the risk assessment, and update clear labelling requirements for all GMOs”, including on feeds, seeds and pharmaceuticals.

Bowe said that consumers could be confident that the EU now had the “toughest legislation on GMOs in the world”.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the largest federation of environmental organisations in Brussels, however, said that Bowe’s package was a “compromise that still has some major shortcomings”.

Whilst acknowledging that the proposal represented an improvement over the European Commission’s directive that it had drawn on, the pressure group said that problems remained, “in particular, as regards the increased access to information through the public registers of all GMOs grown”.

EEB Vice-President Mauro Albrizio, said, “We call upon the Council [EU ministers] and the Parliament to keep the moratorium until clear and strict rules on traceability, labelling and liability, both for GMOs and products derived from GMOs, are in place.”

The Commission is expected to commit itself in a written declaration to bring forward a proposal on labelling and tracking, which are essential for consumers as they can only take decisions on what they know.

It is likely to say that the proposal will be presented in the course of 2001 and will provide appropriate monitoring for products derived from GMOs, as well as supplementing the labelling regime in accordance with a White Paper on Food Safety.

Pioneered in the United States and on the market since the early 1990s, GMOs have been treated with extreme caution by the EU until now.

The concept of modifying plants to make them immune to herbicides or control the ripening process has raised fears in Europe that ‘super weeds’ could spread out of control, and modified products - not yet thoroughly tested - could have catastrophic effects on public health.

The industry is so new that the full implications of the new biotechnology are not known and much of Europe is against even carrying out controlled tests on GM crops.

According to Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), most of the GMOs imported into the EU are destined for the animal feed market, and the Union relies on imports for 70% of the high-protein feed for farm animals.

Eight GMOs are authorised in accordance with the EU directive now in place for the purpose of use in feed; they are four maize varieties, three rape varieties and a soy variety.

“On the issue of safety, many questions remain unanswered concerning the long-term effect that GMOs and GM derivatives may have on animal and human health,” said FoEE in a Feb. 1 backgrounder anticipating Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament.

In GMO research, antibiotic-resistant markers are used to make the organisms easier to handle. But when such GMOs are released, there is a risk that the resistance gene will cross over into other species and that the resistance will spread.

“There are also widespread concerns, including among [those in] the medical profession, about the continued use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in GM crops destined for the food and feed chain,” said the Brussels-based pressure group, warning that the EU Commission had not put forward relevant legislation on safety and monitoring.

With the proposal adopted Wednesday, Parliament is pushing for antibiotic-resistance markers to be phased out by Dec. 31, 2004 for GMOs placed on the market as products and by Dec. 31, 2008 for GMOs released experimentally.

To date, only 18 authorisations have been approved for commercial use on the continent. Europe’s biotech industry claims that if regulations are further tightened they will have to pay crippling taxes and the fledgling industry will be forced out of the continent.

Companies producing genetically altered corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other foods are eagerly awaiting regulatory approval.

In the plenary debate this week, Bowe argued that Europe needed to lift the moratorium - while putting controls on GMOs in place - in order to be competitive in biotechnology. “Industry cannot wait forever. We must keep Europe in the fast lane on biotechnology,” he said.