Brussels, 05 Nov 2003
The regional parliament of Upper Austria announced on 4 November that it is to appeal against the European Commission's decision not to allow the region to declare itself a genetically modified organism (GMO) free zone.
The Commission rejected the request by Upper Austria on 2 September following consultations with the European Food Safety Authority. The reasons given for its decision were, first, that no new scientific evidence had emerged to support a ban, and second, that Upper Austria had failed to prove the existence of a problem specific to the region that justified such an approach.
The regional parliament, however, rejects both of these conclusions. In its appeal to the Court of First Instance, it points to the recently published results of UK field scale trials, which suggest that certain GM crop varieties could threaten natural biodiversity. Furthermore, the parliament argues that the small scale nature of agricultural production in Upper Austria, together with its uniquely high proportion of organic farmers, constitutes a specific problem for the region.
Legal disagreements aside, there is another reason why Upper Austria is keen to prolong its dispute with the Commission, as the region's agriculture minister Josef Stockinger explained: 'The complaint is something of a David and Goliath type exercise, and is partly designed to raise the level of attention surrounding this debate.'
The amount of attention focussed on the subject rose further still when ten European regions declared themselves 'the network of GMO free regions', also on 4 November. Coordinated by Upper Austria and Tuscany, a document asserting the right of regions to forbid GMOs within their territories was signed by the agriculture ministers of eight further regions: Aquitaine, Basque Country, Limousin, Marche, Salzburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Thrace-Rodopi, and Wales.
Tito Barbini, Minister for Agriculture for the region of Tuscany in Italy, explained why a network of regions was necessary: 'It is important for us all to work jointly, together with grassroots movements, in order to strengthen our position in this debate. We hope for contributions from other regions, and ultimately wish to attract more regions [to the network].'
Mr Barbini also voiced his concern that policy makers have not adequately addressed the subject of GMO free regions in Europe. 'We are calling for this issue to be analysed at the highest political level, not merely by 'management committees'.'
The Commission, however, rejected any possibility of imposing regional bans on GMOs. A spokesperson for Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, Franz Fischler, explained that with no evidence to suggest that all GMOs are harmful to humans or the environment, a blanket ban would violate one of the core principles of the European Union.
'The EU has to give farmers the freedom of choice. If all farmers within a region decide they don't want GMOs, then there is no problem, but we cannot stop those who want to grow them when they are considered completely safe,' the spokesperson said. 'We must not succumb to populism in this case. There are more proportionate measures that can be taken to protect the interests of organic farmers, such as buffer zones, or perhaps limited bans on particular types of GMO.'
A spokesperson for Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin added: 'We must not stifle biotechnology research in Europe. GMOs are not bad in themselves: scientifically they pose no risk to human health, and we are conducting further research to assess their effect on biodiversity.'
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