Prague, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has reignited controversy over the safety of genetically modified foods by ending its informal five-year-old ban on the import of foods containing new types of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.
The European Commission announced in Brussels on 19 May that it will allow the import of a genetically modified sweet corn called Bt-11. The corn, developed by the Swiss biotech company Syngenta, is to be canned and sold for human consumption in supermarkets.
The actual volume of Bt-11 corn sold to the European public will probably not be very significant, given the range of products and varieties already offered on supermarket shelves.
But the decision is important, because it signals the end of a ban imposed in 1998 on the import of new types of GMO foods into the European Union. The ban was imposed amid rising public alarm over the possible long-term health risks of what some environmentalists derisively call "Frankenstein foods."
Surveys indicate a majority of European consumers do not trust genetically modified foods.
Genetic modification is a technique in which genes can be copied and transferred to another living organism -- in this case a food plant. The plant's genetics are altered to improve resistance to such things as disease, drought, and insects.
Biotech companies developing GMO products say genetically modified plants lower food production costs and increase yields. But opponents say there may be as-yet-unknown health risks, and ecological risks through the escape of hardy GMO plants into the natural environment.
EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne called the decision an "important day for consumer choice in Europe." He noted there are already more than 30 genetically modified organisms allowed in the EU -- from before the 1998 ban. And he said the Bt-11 licensing will make future new registration of GMOs easier.
In London, a spokesman for the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, who requested anonymity, welcomed the EU decision. "The industry welcomes the decision, as it really marks the first science-based authorization [in the EU] since 1998. And we hope this marks the starting point for additional GM product approvals, as well."
In Brussels, the biotechnology association EuropaBio also welcomed the move, with Secretary-General Johan Vanhemelrijck expressing hope that eventually the EU will allow the cultivation of new genetically modified crops. At present, the cultivation of live crops with new genetically modified strains remains banned in the EU.
But the opposition to genetically modified foods remains strong in Europe. Surveys indicate a majority of European consumers do not trust them.
"It is a bad decision for Europe, that's the bottom line," said Ben Ayliffe, a spokesman for the environmental organization Greenpeace. "The European Commission is supposedly there to represent the interests of the European citizen and of the environment, but instead it seems they have decided to defend U.S. farmers [and] biotech companies."
Ayliffe was referring to the pressure being put on the EU by the world's biggest GMO producer, the United States. Washington, along with Australia and Argentina, has brought a case against the EU ban at the World Trade Organization. They contend that the ban cannot be justified on scientific grounds.
But Ayliffe said removing the ban won't necessarily bring market acceptance.
"I think this consumer rejection, which is as strong as ever, is not going to be swayed by this approval," Ayliffe said.
Greenpeace is calling for the individual member states of the EU to act unilaterally to ban new GMO varieties. But the European Commission has already made clear it will prosecute member states that do not follow its rulings.