EU Parliament Clears Way to End Ban on Biotech Crops

STRASBOURG, France, July 2, 2003 (ENS) - The European Parliament has backed a compromise package worked out with governments to settle the wording of two key European Union regulations on the traceability and labeling of genetically modified (GM) food and feed products. The deal has been welcomed in all quarters as a milestone in Europe's contentious GM debate. It is also a vital step towards lifting of the EU's de facto moratorium on genetically modified products.

Green groups are delighted with the deal. "This gives countries the power to impose strict restrictions on GM crops in order to protect organic and conventional crops," Friends of the Earth said. But the group warned that the continuing lack of rules on liability for damage by genetically modified organisms is still a "gaping hole" that must be plugged.

The new legislation will ensure full traceability of genetically modified organisms throughout the food chain from farm to table and will provide consumers with comprehensive information by labeling all food and feed consisting of, containing or produced from a genetically modified organism (GMO).

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Genetically modified oilseed rape growing in the United Kingdom (Photo courtesy DEFRA)
Simon Barber of biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio said the new traceability and labelling rules would impose a "heavy regulatory burden on the food chain," but at least would "allow new and pending commercial applications to move forward."

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the move is a "very important step towards full implementation of EU legislation on GMOs" and would "reinforce our international credibility."

The agreement is expected to take the heat out of U.S. anger with the EU over its failure to permit the planting of new biotech crops, though American farmers still believe the new traceability and labeling rules are too stringent.

Members of the European Parliament were voting in Strasbourg today on a package agreed with the Council of Ministers to secure a second reading agreement. The council is likely to formally approve it in September, and the rules will come into force six months after publication in the EU's official journal.

Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said, "We will now have the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment of GM food and feed in the world. This should give consumers greater confidence that the safety of GM products will be independently assessed by the European Food Safety Authority."

"Consumers will also have a clear choice of products to buy as GM food will now be clearly labeled. For the first time farmers will see labels on GM feed," said Byrne. "Europe will now have a comprehensive and transparent system of authorization and labeling that can only enhance business and consumer confidence."

The new regulation on traceability and labeling will require business operators when using or handling GM products to transmit and retain information at each stage of their placement on the market.

Information concerning the presence of GMOs in products must be transmitted throughout the commercial chain and must be retained for five years. The industry will have to ensure that systems are in place to identify to whom and from whom GM products are made available.

Today retailers have to label food consisting of or containing GMOs. This also includes food produced from GMOs if traces of DNA or protein from the genetic modification is detectable in the final product, such as flour produced from genetically modified maize.

However, these labeling provisions do not cover some foods or food ingredients, such as highly refined soya or maize oil produced from GM soya or GM maize. The new law will extend the current labeling requirements to also cover such foods.

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Animal feed containing genetically modified organisms must be labeled under the new legislation. (Photo courtesy Freefoto)
Under the deal, GM traceability will be based on product origin and not, as is the case now, on the presence of modified material in products. The new authorization and labeling requirement will apply to both food and animal feed products.

Non-GM products with an accidental presence of GM material must be labeled as such if the material constitutes more than 0.9 percent of the product. If the GM event has not yet been officially approved, the threshold is limited to 0.5 percent, for a maximum of three years.

The deal-breaker was a compromise on the "coexistence" of GM and conventional or organic crops that has recently split EU policymakers. The clause allows EU member states to "take measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in other products and crops."

Campaigners say this clause will force biotech firms to pay for coexistence measures.

The traceability and labeling agreement removes the last major obstacle to the clearing of the de facto moratorium on new GM crop approvals, though it is still uncertain how quickly this will happen.

Some member states want the new regime up and running first, others are happy just to see the new rules agreed.

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{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email: envdaily@ends.co.uk}