10 March 2003
MINISTERS START TO WATER DOWN LIABILITY DIRECTIVE
*EU tables first ideas on crop contamination debate
EU tables first ideas on crop contamination debate
Reuters, by Jeremy Smith
Mar 7, 2003
BRUSSELS - Europe's farmers will soon see clear legal guidelines on how to grow genetically modified (GM) crops alongside traditional plants and still control the risk of cross-contamination, the European Commission said.
No form of agriculture should be excluded in the EU and there could be no general ban on GM crop cultivation by using GM-free zones as suggested by some EU member states, it said, adding that farmers should be able to grow the crops they chose.
But the issue of how to separate GM and non-GM crops, or "co-existence", was not linked to restarting EU authorisations to grow GM products, it said. Due to consumer fears of "Frankenstein foods", the EU has not authorisedany new high-tech crops since 1998 when several member states vowed to oppose any applications for new permits, pending tougher regulations.
The de facto moratorium has infuriated farmers in the United States, where genetically-modified crops are widely accepted, who say the EU stance harms their maize, cotton and soy exports.
Commission officials say they suspect that co-existence, while not expressly linked to the moratorium, may still be used by the bloc's anti-GM states - about eight of the EU's 15 - to justify more foot-dragging on approving new authorisations.
"For us, this is not linked to the moratorium. Once the new rules are in place, we will approach the issue of the moratorium as soon as possible. The clear choice (to consumers) will be given by the new laws on traceability and labelling," a Commission spokeswoman told reporters.
Already, EU farm and environment ministers have thrashed out tighter legislation on traceability, labelling and rules relating to GM food and feed. The bills are to be debated and voted on by the European Parliament later this year.
When these bills become law, the Commission says, there will be no reason to keep the moratorium. With a fierce debate likely, this may not occur until October at the earliest.
As yet, the EU has no rules to protect traditional and organic farming from the risk of contamination by GM crops.
"The Commission has to decide on a course of action in order to ensure that farmers will be able to cultivate freely the agricultural crops they prefer, be it GM crops, conventional or organic crops," the EU executive body said in a policy paper.
The task of determining economic liability for contamination should probably rest with national governments, although some Brussels-based rules might eventually be needed to ensure equal conditions of competitiveness across member states, it said.
Civil legislation on liability for damage to crops, which in this case would apply if their commercial value was reduced due to cross-pollination, differs widely across the 15-nation bloc.
The first priority would be to look at co-existence for GM maize and rapeseed oil as the limited cultivation of these crops is already approved in theEU, the paper said.
The Commission suggested various options to control the risk of cross- contamination, such as buffer zones, pollen barriers and crop rotation arrangements for differing flowering periods.
These and other ideas will now discussed at a round table debate on April 24 where industry, farmers and environmental groups will also have their say. After this, the Commission hopes to propose formal co-existence guidelines. International environmental group Friends of the Earth was quick to slam the strategy paper, saying the cost to combat cross-contamination would just be handed to the non-GM sector.
"These dreadful proposals would give the biotech industry a licence to pollute our food, farming and the environment. Growing GM crops will cause chaos in the countryside," said the group's GM campaigner Pete Riley.
"The Commission must make it absolutely clear that the cost of GM pollution must be paid by biotech firms and those growing GM crops," he said in a statement.