Brussels, Apr 2004
The EU's 15 agricultural ministers failed to reach an agreement, on 26 April on whether to allow the Swiss-based company Syngenta to sell its BT-11 bio-engineered corn.
The UK, Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden voted in favour of authorising the sale of this maize, while Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal voted against. Belgium, Spain and Germany abstained.
The stalemate means the decision will be sent back to the European Commission, which has stated it will 'most likely' approve the sales of the crop, following a complaint by the US at the World Trade Organisation.
Asked when the Commission was expected to take a decision on the matter, the EU's health commissioner, David Byrne is reported as saying: 'It is difficult to predict exactly, but I would imagine this will be before the Commission in late May or early June [...]. Once these foods are authorised [they] will be able to go on the market and I expect the Member States to respect the laws of the EU.'
The US, the EU's major trading partner, backed by Canada, Argentina and eight other countries, have challenged the EU's de facto moratorium on genetically modified (GM) food, claiming it violates international trade rules.
By allowing Syngenta to import the sweetcorn, the ministers would have effectively scrapped the EU's de facto ban, in place since 1999.
The BT-11 corn variety has been genetically modified to be insect and herbicide resistant. The Commission's proposal to authorise it only concerns consumption of the corn, not its cultivation.
It is the first of 34 applications for regulatory clearance of products with GM ingredients.
Environmental groups are opposed to the introduction of GM food on the European market and demonstrated outside the Council of Ministers building in Luxembourg. In a statement before the Ministers' meeting, Greenpeace said: 'Our governments are being asked to wave through a highly controversial GMO under pressure from the European Commission and biotech firms supported by the US government. [...] Ministers should instead stand up for consumers, reject Bt-11 and take action to tighten up the current slack evaluation procedures.'
Friends of the Earth also issued a statement saying: 'There is clearly no scientific or political consensus on the safety of this genetically modified maize. The Commission now has a choice. It can force the GM maize into the European market, knowing that there are unanswered questions about its safety, or it can reject it outright. It is time that they put the safety of the public before the commercial concerns of the biotechnology industry.'
Syngenta, on the other hand, stated 'We are looking forward to the EU process progressing in the interests of consumer choice and technological innovation'.
Michael Stopford, head of public affairs at Syngenta, added: 'Of course we're thoroughly convinced that our product is safe.'