"The pressure is building all the time for a serious debate and there's a limit as to how long they (Commission) can resist the pressure," he said. "There's a serious debate on GMOs coming and that should kick off sometime in the middle of next year."

EU Eyes WTO Case to Drive Policy Forward on GMOs
by Jeremy Smith
BELGIUM: December 2, 2005

BRUSSELS - Senior EU policymakers are unclear where they stand on genetically modified (GMO) foods even after years of debate and are looking to a world trade ruling that may dictate where to move next, diplomats say.

While the European Union restarted approvals of GMO products in 2004 after a break of almost six years, the end of the bloc's unofficial biotech ban did not come with the blessing of all its 25 governments -- which repeatedly fail to agree on GMO policy.

Since 1998, EU member states have not found enough of a voting majority to agree any new GMO approvals. And since the moratorium ended, the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, has rubberstamped five new authorisations on their behalf.

The limbo is reflected at the Commission itself, which says it is following EU law by issuing new approvals -- but where nobody in the top echelons seems to be driving policy forward.

The "leadership vacuum" on GMOs shows few signs of being filled until the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on a suit filed against the EU by Argentina, Canada and the United States.

Fearing a new trade war, the Commission is keen to show the three complainants that Europe is ready to push GMO applications through the EU system, diplomats say. The WTO is due to issue its ruling, already delayed several times, in early January.

"The WTO outcome will clarify things and inject some reality into the GMO debate, which at the moment is dominated by the idea that the EU can do whatever it likes," one said. "The ruling is the only thing that can bring any kind of political movement."

Europe's shoppers are known for their wariness towards GMO products, often dubbed as "Frankenstein foods", with opposition polled at slightly over 70 percent: a stark constrast with the United States, where they are far more widely accepted.


Six European Commissioners are pivotal for the direction of GMO policy in Brussels, and represent the environment, trade, agriculture, research, industry and food safety portfolios.

Probably the most pro-biotech is Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who said in a speech in September: "the Commission, public authorities, academia and industry together, should try to present the usefulness of GMOs to the public".

On green biotech, "public attitudes as well as member states' positions hamper the development in this area," he said.

Verheugen may get some backing to push for a firmer line on accelerating GMO approvals from Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson if the WTO attacks EU biotech policy, officials say.

But the others seem to be sitting more on the fence. Food Safety Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, for example, would like to see an end to the deadlock in GMO votes, where EU states debate whether to authorise a particular product.

Not completely convinced about the benefits of GMOs, Kyprianou does not want EU farming to be dominated by biotech to the same extent as in the United States, insiders say.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, one of the more GMO-wary commissioners, has refrained from putting "live" GMOs for cultivation up for debate and looks in no hurry to do so.

Dimas will participate in a GMO policy debate with EU environment ministers on Friday but little concrete is expected to come of it until after the WTO makes its ruling.

And for Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, the main issue to be resolved is coexistence: EU jargon for how farmers should separate traditional, organic and biotech crops.

Fischer Boel has often said she may consider a legal framework, maybe in 2006, for how EU governments should regulate coexistence on national territories, instead of the current non-binding guidelines. Now, her rhetoric seems to have faded.

"There seems to be a lack of urgency among some of the Commissioners to address some of the problems," said Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner at lobby group Friends of the Earth Europe.

"They (Commission) ... know they're not going to get support from the majority of member states so they're just playing a long game now," he said.

Apart from the WTO case, another factor that may force the EU to take a firmer stance on biotechnology - either for or against - will be the Commission's reviews of some of the EU's plethora of GMO laws, due sometime next year.

"The Commission will be under quite a lot of pressure to publish its review of the existing regulatory regime by the summer," the diplomat said.

"The pressure is building all the time for a serious debate and there's a limit as to how long they (Commission) can resist the pressure," he said. "There's a serious debate on GMOs coming and that should kick off sometime in the middle of next year."