EU environment chief faces GMO hot potato
By Jeremy Smith
Reuters, Wed Oct 3 2007
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's environment chief faces a showdown this month with his colleagues in the EU's executive Commission over biotech foods and crops, officials say.
The root cause is a potato.
Since July, the biotech industry has been waiting for the Commission to authorize an application by German chemicals group BASF for a genetically modified (GMO) potato for use in industry rather than as food.
The application for a potato, engineered to yield high amounts of starch has triggered controversy far exceeding the usual European consumer wariness over GMO foods.
If, or rather when, it is approved by the Commission, the EU's executive arm, it will be the first GMO product to be passed since 1998 that is designed to be grown in Europe's fields.
It is not intended for human consumption but rather for use in industries such as paper-making.
BASF, which would like to start commercial cultivation next year, has made a separate EU application for the same potato under a different legal process to use its pulp, known commercially as Amflora, as animal feed.
EU farm ministers discussed the BASF application in mid-July but failed to reach agreement. As a result, the decision over the potato has landed on the Commission's plate.
And that, unless new data, doubts or scientific opinions emerge, is almost certain to mean eventual approval.
Officials said the Amflora application would probably be discussed at a full meeting of the 27-member Commission in mid-October, a debate that is likely to be heated.
In Amflora's case, there has been little movement on an authorization from the responsible Commission department, that headed by EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas -- known as one of the Commission's more biotech-wary commissioners.
It is also not the first time that Dimas has been reluctant to move on GMO dossiers, diplomats say.
"He (Dimas) is sitting on it but he can also be forced to act by the President (of the European Commission)," one Commission official said. "The regulation says that we have to act in 'a reasonable time' -- but what is 'reasonable'?"
The biotech industry, which insists that its products are as safe as non-GMO equivalents, has long vented its frustration over what it sees as the EU's delay in approving GMOs, saying it loses time and money in not being allowed access to EU markets.
That frustration has been expressed in legal challenges, which have also encouraged the Commission to re-examine its internal policy on biotech crops and foods.
The most famous example was when Argentina, Canada and the United States filed against the EU executive at the World Trade Organization over the EU's de facto moratorium on new GMO authorizations, which ran for some six years and ended in 2004.
The WTO found that the EU's effective blockade on new GMO imports constituted "undue delay" and violated trade rules.
More recently, in May, Pioneer Hi-Bred International -- a subsidiary of DuPont Co -- filed a lawsuit against the Commission over its alleged delay in submitting the company's application for EU approval of its modified 1507 maize product.