Biotech firms and retailers battle over GMOs segregation

Leading biotechnology companies have written to the US President, Bill Clinton, urging him to pursue World Trade Organisation (WTO) sanctions against the EC if it legislates to require segregation of genetically modified and conventional products. But European retailers have written to US crop distributors warning that segregation is the only way to build consumer confidence in foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The European Commission is planning to revise the 1990 EC Directive on deliberate release of GMOs. As an interim measure, it recently legislated to require labels to state when products "may" contain GMOs. But labels will not have to state categorically whether or not a product contains modified material - a requirement that would demand segregation right down the production chain.

European retailers have been lobbying since last year for genetically modified crops, such as Monsanto's soya beans and Novartis' maize seeds, to be segregated from conventional products. And in April, the European Parliament passed a resolution criticising the Commission for putting the value of the EC's trade with the USA before public health and environmental concerns when it granted approval for Novartis' modified maize last December.

US and European biotechnology companies, together with the American agriculture industry, are now urging the US Administration to threaten to push for WTO sanctions against the EC if it legislates to require labels to say whether or not a product contains GMOs. In June, they wrote to President Clinton saying that US agriculture "is charged with the great responsibility to feed and clothe an ever increasing world population," and that biotechnology is a crucial part of the technology needed to do so.

The signatories, who included Novartis and Monsanto, said that "segregation of bulk commodities is not scientifically justified and is economically unrealistic." They said: "It is critical the European Union understand at the highest level that the US would consider any trade barrier, it discriminatory labelling or segregation, unacceptable and subject to challenge in the WTO."

The EC Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, has met US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to urge him to accept the principle of segregation, but without success. Such a policy, he was told, could disrupt agricultural exports worth $4-5 billion per year.

In Europe, the public remains sceptical about genetically modified food products, although biotechnology applications are seen as potentially useful. Last autumn, a Eurobarometer survey of 16,000 people across the EC found that 74% believed that modified food should be labelled. Among the organisations they trusted to tell the truth about modified food, the most popular - with 26% support - were environmental bodies. Only 2% trusted industry.

To gain more public support, the European biotechnology industry association, EuropaBio, unveiled a draft statement of "core ethical values" at its annual conference in Amsterdam in June. This commits its members to supporting "transparent product information to promote informed consumer choice," but does not mention labelling.

European retailers and trade associations have sent an open letter to the US commodity agriculture business warning that "the inability, or is it the unwillingness, of US agribusiness to innovate in its collection and distribution systems, in order to address the simple lack of in-built traceability from field to elevator and on to European shores, threatens the cause of biotechnology and its huge potential for good." Signatories included seven of the top eight British retailers plus the Food and Drink Federation and the British Retail Consortium.

Meanwhile, an amendment to Annex III of the 1990 Directive on the deliberate release of GMOs was agreed by a committee of Member States' officials - despite German opposition - at the end of May and formally adopted by the Commission in the form of a Directive in June (ENDS Report 267, pp 38-39 ).

The amendment requires companies seeking marketing authorisation for new modified products to indicate on the label or in an accompanying document that they contain or, where they are to be placed on the market in mixtures with non-modified organisms, may contain GMOs. The Directive is to be transposed into national law by 31 July.1The Directive does not cover currently pending notifications, but the Commission has made it clear that notifiers who label their products voluntarily can expect their applications to be processed more quickly. According to the Commission, Plant Genetic Systems (PGS), AgrEvo, Monsanto - and "to a certain extent" Novartis and Pioneer - have agreed to do so, but Bejo Zaden and Valio had not responded by mid-June. PGS received approval for two modified rape seeds after agreeing to label them in accordance with the Directive and saying that labels "may be applicable for the harvested material."

The Commission announced on 9 June that the EC scientific committees on pesticides, foods and animal nutrition had rejected arguments by Austria and Luxembourg in support of their national bans on Novartis' modified maize. A proposal calling for the bans to be lifted was discussed at the Environment Council on 19-20 June, but no agreement was reached. Austria is unlikely to climb down, so the matter may have to be resolved by the European Court of Justice.

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