The debate gets fierce

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union, European commission, Genetically modified food, Eu

EU officials are hoping that genetically modified sweetcorn may
prove to be the key to unlocking one of the bitterest trade rows in
history. Despite fierce consumer opposition to genetically modified
organisms (GMOs), the European Commission is to put the issue to a
vote in two weeks' time in the belief that a five-year ban on new
biotech crops could finally be lifted.

This decision follow an informal vote at a Commission committee, which showed that the bloc still does not have enough support to back its recommended approval for Bt-11 sweetcorn. Only six countries -- Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and UK -- supported the Commission's draft decision to authorise imports of Bt-11 maize, marketed by Swiss agrochemicals giant Syngenta.

The committee is due to meet again on 8 December 2003, where a decision will be made. The EU says that the maize in question would be imported as a food product to be eaten straight from the can, and not for planting. If approved, retailers would not be able to sell Bt-11 maize until the middle of 2004.

The difficulty of course is that any approval would undoubtedly face a great deal of public opposition. Consumer scepticism is rife, and many supermarkets have, until now, been deterred from stocking GM foods. However, some EU ministers are confident that the sweetcorn issue could signal the end of the unofficial ban on GMOs. This would end the EU's ongoing trade dispute with Argentina, Canada and the United States.

The issue is also interesting because it reveals much about how the EU operates. The bloc's vote weighting system means that if enough large countries back a new resolution to allow the sale of Bt-11 sweetcorn on 8 December, then the EU's ban will be effectively lifted. France, Britain, Germany and Italy have 10 votes, while the total available is 87. However, it would take only 26 votes to force the EU into an embarrassing climb-down over the issue.

But whatever the outcome, the issue of actually planting biotech crops remains up in the air. Debate still rages, and the results of farm trials of GM crops have all be muddied the issue. For example Lord May, president of the UK's Royal Society, claimed this week that the results of farm-scale trials of have been misrepresented.

The Guardian newspaper reports him as saying that the results merely show that the more herbicide farmers used on crops, the worse it was for wild plants and animals and the more the countryside suffered. What was really needed, he said, was a debate on modern farming methods.

An open meeting of the government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) was held yesterday to discuss the farm trial results. A recommendation will be made on whether GM crops should be commercially grown in Britain.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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