Ministers press for end to GM ban

By Geoffrey Lean Environment Editor

13 October 2002

British ministers will press this week for a Europe-wide go-ahead on new GM crops and foods. At two crucial meetings of EU ministers, they will push for an immediate end to a ban on approving new GM products, which has been in operation for the past four years.

If their bid – which follows intense pressure from the United States – succeeds, it will pave the way for new GM products to appear on supermarket shelves, and new GM crops to be sown in fields throughout the continent.

Britain will argue, at meetings of agriculture ministers tomorrow and environment ministers on Thursday, that the ban is illegal. The European Commission takes the same view, and the political balance in Europe has shifted in their favour as a result of recent right-wing election victories across the continent.

Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth last night described the British position as "another case of the Government kowtowing to George Bush, jeopardising the interests of its own people to please its master across the Atlantic".

No new GM crops or foods have been approved for use in the EU since October 1998, when governments imposed a voluntary moratorium in the face of rising public anger at the way the technology was introduced, largely without consumers knowing about it.

The United States has consistently campaigned against the ban – which, it claims, has cost it $200m (#128m) a year in lost corn exports alone – but France, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium have insisted that they would veto any new approvals, pending new regulations for labelling GM products and for tracing them back to their source.

New regulations approved six months ago come into force on Thursday, and the EC is taking the opportunity to press for the ban to be lifted, fearing that otherwise the United States will take action against it in the World Trade Organisation.

David Byrne, the EU Health and Safety Commissioner, says that "conditions are now ripe" for lifting the ban and, echoing language used by Tony Blair, adds: "Europe must act now to prevent the biotech field being hindered by emotional reaction."

Environmentalists point out that evidence has strengthened enormously that genes from GM crops will spread, contaminating other produce and creating superweeds– EC reports now acceptthat this is "inevitable". Concerns that GM foods may pose health risks have also grown.

Although the new regulations do provide for labelling, environmentalists say they contain no detailed provisions to trace the GM products. Nor do they address how firms and farmers should be made liable for any damage to health and the environment.