The European commission is desperate to make
progress on genetically
modified food, but individual countries remain deeply
Friday October 18, 2002
morning several large biotechnology companies will dust off
four-year-old applications to grow GM crops in Europe, and resubmit
to the EU commission with a few additions. Another hurdle to
growing them commercially has, technically, been overcome.
there will be no champagne in the corporate boardrooms to celebrate
directive 2000/18, which became law yesterday after 18 months' delay.
has not allowed any new GM food or crops to be licensed since
1998, and the
reality is that it will take at least another year before
DuPont and other companies get approval for their
crops, and far longer than
that before they are planted on a wide scale.
directive coming into force, Europe this week is as confused
and divided as
ever about GM foods. After years of squabbling, wrangling
new proposals have been drawn up by the commission's
Danish presidency. They
have come in two parts - food and animal feed,
and labelling and
"traceability" - with the idea that together these
will provide better safety
testing and consumer choice. With these
planks in place, the commission has
thought, the way would be clear for
the crops to be authorised.
Fat chance. Europe's council of agricultural ministers met on Monday
Luxembourg, and failed to agree. The commission had proposed that
food containing more than 1% of GM products should be
labelled, but Sweden insisted on "zero tolerance", Austria and
called for far tighter limits, while France and others were in favour
The Danish presidency, keen to make progress
on GM issues, also proposed
that individual states should be allowed
temporarily to authorise the
sale of new GM products. This would have allowed
small amounts of GM
foods to be sold in Europe for three years without being
too, fell flat - supported only by Austria, Denmark, Ireland
with other countries pushing for a different system.
With the farm ministers having failed to reach agreement, the GM
passed yesterday to Europe's environment ministers to discuss
and traceability. Last week there were strong rumours that they
take the chance to propose lifting the effective moratorium on
the crops. But with far too much uncertainty on the major points
contention addressed by their agricultural colleagues, and with
of financial and environmental liability barely touched on, they
got themselves into a muddle and failed to agree.
whole process will almost certainly now go forward to more meetings
November, and then to conciliation. By then, Britain will be in the
its debate and the food standards agency, which has largely
policy, will be reconsidering its whole GM position.
companies and the European commission, the grindingly slow,
twisting European road to legal acceptance of the crops gets
ever more bogged
down. The companies claim they have lost $12bn
(GBP7.7bn) of sales in the
past four years, and the commission is now
coming under mounting pressure
from impatient US trade officials.
Everyone in the commission wants the US
off its back and an end to the
whole vexed affair.
commission has tried to raise the stakes and has lately pushed Irish
and consumer affairs commissioner David Byrne to argue that
people are now
ready to accept the foods, and that Europe must act to
biotechnology field being hindered "by emotional reaction
He and others have played up threats of a trade war
with the US in order
to influence ministers and voters, but few people
believe that the World
Trade Organisation will want to act before the
process has been exhausted - probably in 2004.
The companies are prepared to hang in because the European market is
large and potentially lucrative, but their patience is wearing
They accept that even if member states do eventually agree on
labelling and all the other outstanding issues in the next year,
countries may never allow them to be grown commercially for
political reasons. Like the euro, GM may never be acceptable in
It is a war of attrition, with both sides
saying that time is on their
side and putting on a show of optimism. The
companies believe that the
political momentum in favour of the crops is now
building and that
governments are getting fidgety. They say that farm groups,
four years ago were not interested, are now asking them for
technology and say that consumers are less hostile.
best hope now is that, as more countries around the world pass
allowing the crops to be grown and sold, so Europe will
and technologically isolated. It will not be long,
they say, before many more
European politicians start shouting for the
continent to catch up with the
likes of China and India. Given Europe's
strong consumer protection laws,
they believe consumers will eventually
come to trust the foods, and that
member states will have no scientific
or social excuse left to stop
But they also know that even when European politicians do
agreement, the decision on whether to let farmers grow the crops
eventually come down to national politics, and any country will still
able to say no.
Unfortunately for the companies and the
commission, the formidable
coalition of national and international
development and faith groups which vehemently opposed
of the crops four years ago has not disappeared and is
being able to crank up concerted opposition whenever it has to.
directive 2000/18 may be only dimly remembered.
is the Guardian's environment editor