Permission for GM maize threatens contamination, warn campaigners

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The Independent Online

Seventeen varieties of genetically modified maize are to be made available for planting throughout the EU after a decision that environmental campaigners warned could lead to contamination of conventional crops.

Seventeen varieties of genetically modified maize are to be made available for planting throughout the EU after a decision that environmental campaigners warned could lead to contamination of conventional crops.

The move, the first of its kind by the European Commission, came as the authorities also opened the way to licence the import and processing of a GM oilseed rape produced by the biotech company Monsanto.

Environmental campaigners attacked both decisions, saying that there was no popular mandate for wider use of GM crops. They welcomed, however, a separate decision by the European Commission to shelve plans for rules on seed purity, which would have set thresholds for GM content.

Under pressure from the US, which argues that EU restrictions on GM produce breach global trading rules, Brussels is moving slowly to free up the European market. A de facto embargo on new GM approvals ended earlier this year, although Washington is still pursuing its case through the World Trade Organisation.

Before yesterday's decision the 17 GM seeds, produced from Monsanto's MON810 maize, which is modified to make it resistant to some insects, had been listed for sale only in Spain and France. But, because they had received EU-wide authorisation since 1998, the Commission said it was obliged to include them in a "common catalogue" of seeds available in all 25 EU countries.

David Byrne, EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, described the decision as "logical". He added: "The maize has been thoroughly assessed to be safe for human health and the environment. It has been grown in Spain for years without any known problems. It will be clearly labelled as GM maize to allow farmers a choice."

A Friends of the Earth campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, described the move as a recipe for disaster, saying consumers "do not want GM food or crops, especially as there are no rules in place to prevent GM contamination".

The decision is unlikely to significantly change the EU's position within the WTO. A US diplomat argued that, while the decision was positive, "it has taken six years and that does not mean that a timely and efficient system is in place". Monsanto will also have to wait for its GM maize GT73 to be approved, although that is now almost certain to happen this year or early in 2005.

If national governments fail to reach agreement within three months then the Commission can grant the authorisation. Meanwhile, the Commission admitted it was unable to reach consensus on rules over the purity of seeds containing GMOs. The next team of commissioners, due to take over in November, will have to deal with the issue.

The chief spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, said there were divisions within the 25-member college over the threshold level. A draft plan would have allowed batches of maize and rape seed to contain up to 0.3 per cent GMOs before being labelled as genetically modified. At least eight commissioners argued for 0.5 per cent.

Green groups, many of which feel the threshold should be 0.1 per cent, say it would be better to have no legislation at all than a higher threshold because national laws then apply. Many countries have zero tolerance.

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