EU Environment Ministers Vote to Uphold Ban on Biotech Crops
By James Kanter
International Herald Tribune
March 2, 2009
BRUSSELS - European Union governments delivered a blow Monday to the biotechnology industry, allowing Austria and Hungary to maintain national bans on growing genetically modified crops from Monsanto.
The vote, taken by European environment ministers, could irritate the U.S. government, which has in the past complained to the World Trade Organization about obstacles to planting bioengineered crops.
The vote also was a blow to the European Commission, the EU executive arm. The commission has sought in recent years to ease the restrictions in Europe on gene-altered crops, in part to keep down the cost of animal feed.
Member states were "firm" and the "commission should take a close reading of the result," the French environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said after the announcement in Brussels, according to Bloomberg News.
The market for genetically engineered crops is worth several billion dollars worldwide. Only one genetically altered crop is currently grown in Europe: a form of corn, called MON 810, produced by Monsanto and other companies.
In 2003, the United States, Argentina and Canada brought complaints about the EU's biotechnology policies at the WTO, which ruled in 2006 that a de facto ban on imports of genetically modified foods between 1984 and 2004 violated trade rules.
Since that ruling, the commission has required Austria to drop its ban on imports of genetically modified foods. But some other countries have maintained bans on imports and cultivation of such crops, and the United States still could impose punitive duties on the Europeans for continuing to block trade.
"The risk has increased this morning that attention now will be thrown back to the WTO," Willy De Greef, the secretary general of Europabio, a biotechnology industry organization in Brussels, said after the EU announcement.
The U.S. Mission to the European Union had no immediate comment. Officials at offices of the U.S. Trade Representative in Geneva and Washington could not be reached.
"We are looking very carefully at the implications of this decision for the WTO case," said Amadeu Altafaj, a spokesman for the European Commission.
Barbara Helfferich, a spokesperson for EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said the commission would take some time to formulate its next move.
Groups opposed to biotechnology said the vote was a signal to the commission to stop trying to win permission for the crops until it used more rigorous methods to prove that they are safe.
"The commission must now abandon its unpopular proposals once and for all and get down to the real work of making risk assessments that we can believe in," said Helen Holder, the coordinator for genetically modified organisms at Friends of the Earth Europe.