The European Union is trying to regain the public's confidence in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by strengthening the laws that govern their release onto the market.
But according to environmental group Greenpeace, the European Commission is fast tracking approval procedures under pressure from United States trade threats.
GMOs are organisms whose genetic deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. Recombinant DNA technology, or genetic engineering, allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, sometimes between non-related species.
But the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture and the food industry in Europe is currently the focus of intense public and political debate.
Consumers, environmentalists and some scientists worry about potential risks to human health and the environment. Among their concerns are that GM crops that rely upon high amounts of pesticides and fertilizers could cause toxic or allergenic effects, the spread of antibiotic resistance genes to gut bacteria and pathogens and large scale elimination of indigenous agricultural and natural species.
Those concerns led to a European Union moratorium in October 1998. Since then, no new genetically modified products have been approved under European Union procedure.
In May, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky in a letter to Congress member Cal Dooley, said the U.S. may consider a possible dispute settlement case in the World Trade Organization against the European Union for its failure to approve biotechnology varieties of corn.
The U.S. wants to unblock corn exports to the European Union with a proposal that assures U.S. laboratories would conduct tests to ensure that U.S. shipments do not contain any unapproved varieties of genetically altered corn.
Now the European Commission, the executive arm of the 15 member European Union, wants to resume its approval procedure with stronger laws on labelling, monitoring and traceability.
The Commission says consumers should be able to choose for themselves whether they want products containing GMOs or not.
"Our role is to provide a framework for the authorization and control of GMOs, which is reliable and safe for consumers and the environment," said European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrm. "We need to re-establish confidence in our approval systems."
Greenpeace spokeswoman Isabelle Meister says the Commission has different motives.
"The Commission is bowing to U.S. threats with a proposal which flies in the face of current consumer and member state concern over the regulation of genetically modified crops," said Meister.
Among the proposals are a comprehensive set of labelling provisions to cover GMOs and GMO products and an initiative on a traceability system for GMOs.
The labelling of GM free foods would be regulated as would labelling rules governing food containing GMOs or derived from GMOs.
For instance, the current law regulates GMOs such as GM tomatoes, but does not extend to products derived from GMOs, such as tomato sauce or ketchup from a GM tomato.
The Commission also wants accelerated work on related issues such as environmental liability and the monitoring and study of possible long term effects on biodiversity.
Under the revised directive governing GMOs, companies would make voluntary commitments in line with the new requirements as part of their applications for approval. The commitments would become legally binding when approval is granted.
However, Greenpeace's European Union political advisor Ceri Lewis believes that is not good enough. "Multinational companies are unlikely to respect a weak voluntary agreement especially while they are not liable for any damage cause by their products," she said.
Greenpeace wants companies made liable for any environmental damage or contamination caused by their products, certification systems for imported seed and the possibility of GMO-free zones.
The Commission plans to apply the new provisions to all new GMO approvals under a revised directive governing GMOs. Agreement between the European Parliament and the European Council could result in adoption of the revised directive by autumn 2000. This would take effect under member states' national laws by spring 2002.
Under the current directive, passed in October 1991 and known as Directive 90/220/EEC, GMOs have to undergo a scientific assessment of risks to human health and the environment before receiving Community authorisation. Some 18 authorizations have been approved for the commercial release of GMOs since 1991. No consents have been granted since October 1998 and there are currently 14 applications pending approval.
Some member states have invoked Article 16 of Directive 90/220/EEC, known as the "safety clause," to temporarily ban genetically modified maize and oilseed rape products in their territories. There are currently eight ongoing Article 16 cases involving Austria, Luxembourg, France, Greece and Germany.
Six of these cases have been transmitted to the European Union's Scientific Committee on Plants for opinion. In all cases, the committee deemed that the information submitted by member states did not justify their bans.
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