Europe urged to move on transgenic crop imports

Munich

The president of the European Commission last week called for an end to Europe's effective moratorium on the growth and importation of genetically modified crops.

Supporters of agricultural biotechnology are hoping that a letter from Romano Prodi to the commissioners of the European Union's (EU's) 15 member states will mark the beginning of the end of the moratorium. The letter, sent on 28 January, urges member states to restart the approval process for the crops to avoid a trade war with the United States. But the jury is still out on whether Prodi's message will make much difference.

The EU hasn't given the go-ahead for the importation or cultivation of any genetically modified crop since October 1998, and last August a World Trade Organization panel was set up to consider a complaint from the United States, Canada and Argentina that the go-slow violates its trading rules.

Last year, the EU passed laws stipulating the labelling and traceability of the crops. The laws come into effect in April. “Now that the necessary legislative decisions have been taken,” Prodi wrote in his letter, “it is important to demonstrate to the European public and to our trade partners that the EU system of authorisation is working as designed.”

Currently, 22 applications are awaiting approval across the EU. The first in line — and an acid test of the new policy — is a request to import an insect-resistant sweetcorn variety called Bt11, developed by the Swiss firm Syngenta and grown in the United States.

In December, a regulatory committee failed to reach the qualified majority required to permit importation of the corn. The matter will now go to a council of ministers from member states, which has three months to make a decision. But if the council fails to achieve the necessary majority either in favour or against — as many observers predict — the European Commission will decide. If that happens, imports are likely to start as early as April.

One crop that is unlikely to be approved is herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, marketed by Bayer CropScience in Monheim am Rhein, Germany, and submitted for approval to the Belgian government. Ministers ruled against the application on 2 February after studying the results of a British report that found that the herbicide-spraying regime associated with oilseed rape could harm the environment.

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Schiermeier, Q. Europe urged to move on transgenic crop imports. Nature 427, 474 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/427474b

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