July 8/Brussels, Belgium/The International Herald Tribune -- After decades of pushing nations to surrender more power to the European Union, the bloc is pulling back on efforts to assert its authority over one highly contentious issue: genetically modified foods.
On Tuesday, the European Commission will formally propose giving back to national and local governments the freedom to decide whether to allow such crops. The new policy is aimed at overcoming a stalemate that has severely curtailed the market for biotech seeds in Europe. Only two types of those seeds, produced by the agricultural giant Monsanto and the chemical company BASF, are sold for cultivation in Europe.
The new flexibility is aimed at opening up markets in countries like the Netherlands, where governments are favorable toward growing and trading biotech products, while countries like Austria, where the products are unpopular, can maintain a ban.
However, far from celebrating the new approach, some in the growing global industry -- as well as some farmers -- are extremely wary.
''So many different authorities suddenly doing so many different things risks sending a message to successful growers in Africa and Asia that authorities are unsure how to deal with biotech,'' said Nathalie Moll, the secretary general of EuropaBio, an industry group.
She said it also remained to be seen whether the proposals would conform with World Trade Organization rules.
The U.S. and the European Union are still resolving a dispute over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and related issues after the trade organization ruled against Europe's de facto ban in 2006. Washington could still retaliate in that case.
The Office of the U.S. trade representative would not comment on the new approach but said it would be on the agenda at a meeting with European officials this month.
Despite ''some progress'' in recent months, the U.S. ''still has a number of concerns,'' said Nefeterius Akeli McPherson, a spokeswoman for the trade representative. They include ''a substantial backlog of pending biotech applications, and bans adopted by individual EU member states on biotech products approved at the EU level.''
The reality remains that the European Union still produces few genetically modified crops, which many Europeans derisively call Frankenfoods.
The U.S., Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada are the top five producers of such crops as measured by land under cultivation. The European Union, with 27 member nations, ranks 14th.
A critical factor behind the proposed change in Europe is a growing frustration with the current system, under which meetings between government officials and ministers often end in deadlock. That forces unelected officials at the European Commission to make the final decision on authorizing biotech products.
The commission has found itself repeatedly pressured on one side by the U.S. and the W.T.O. to follow the recommendations of its own scientific authorities and enforce the use of approved products and on the other by countries like Austria and environmental groups that believe the EU authorities are too eager to promote newfangled technologies.
Under the new proposals, the commission would continue to make the approvals itself but leave it to members and the local and regional authorities to decide what they want to grow at home.
However, whether the new rules will win the necessary approval from EU governments and the European Parliament still is unclear.
In an unlikely alliance, the Austrian and Dutch governments first made the proposal in 2008.
Animal farming is a big part of the economy in the Netherlands, which, in turn, is a major exporter of meat and dairy products. The Dutch are also involved in developing biotech products. The Austrians supported the changes as a way to keep the country's national ban on growing any such crops without facing regular challenges from the EU authorities.
Other countries, though, have expressed concern about setting a precedent that could undermine European integration.
''If the agricultural policy is common, why wouldn't the policy of cultivation of GMOs be?'' asked Elena Espinosa, the Spanish environment minister. Spain grew 80% of the biotech corn, engineered to resist a pest called the corn borer, produced in Europe last year.
Even farmers who favor biotech crops are concerned that the commission is offloading a problem on them - and that the issue could become even more politicized than it is now.
''The Welsh and the Scots are vehemently opposed to genetically modified crops,'' said Philip Lodge, who would like to farm biotech sugar beets in northern England. ''With these conflicts of interest so close to home, I just don't see how I'll be able to grow GM in practice.''
Other farmers warned that the change risked stirring up new confrontations with activists, who in the past have destroyed crops planted in trial fields.
''The prospect terrorizes me,'' said Jerome Hue, who farms in Carcans, France. ''If every locality can ban GMOs, I don't see how we will be allowed to grow the crops anywhere in France anymore.''
However, commission officials and some other member states like the Netherlands say the new policy points the way to managing an increasingly unwieldy group of 27 countries.
Last week, in the latest example of the persistent differences, countries failed for a third time to break a deadlock over whether to allow imports of six varieties of bioengineered corn for food and feed.
That leaves the decision up to the EU health commissioner, John Dalli, who is expected to approve the products in coming months.
In the European Parliament, among those reviewing the proposed new rules will be José Bové, a French sheep farmer who has served time in a French prison for damaging biotech crops.
He is now a deputy chairman of the agriculture committee at the European Parliament, where he was elected as a member of the Green Party.
From the July 9, 2010, Prepared Foods' Daily News
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