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EU: Row Developing Over GM-Free Farm Zones

The European Union authorities in Brussels are heading for a row with ecologically conscious regions that want to establish agricultural zones free of genetically modified (GM) food crops. The European Commission this week (2 September) rejected an attempt by the Austrian region of Upper Austria to declare itself GM-free. Other regions had been planning to do the same as part of a wave of consumer protest in Europe against genetically modified products. But the EU is under heavy pressure in the international trading arena, particularly from the United States, to allow normal cultivation of such crops.

Prague, 3 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Austrian federal state of Upper Austria says it will mount a court challenge to the European Commission's decision banning the state from creating a farming zone free of genetically modified (GM) crops.

The office of Upper Austria's premier, Josef Pueringer, issued a statement last night saying his government will fight the order from Brussels at the European Court of Justice. The statement said Upper Austria intends to stick to its plan to create what would be the European Union's first statutory GM-free farming zone.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants that have been artificially changed by genetic engineering to emphasize particular characteristics, such as resistance to insects or fungi. Although commercially accepted in the United States and some developing countries, agricultural GMOs have met strong consumer resistance in Europe.

The EU has for years had a de facto ban on most GM foodstuffs but is now removing those bans under international pressure from trading partners.

Explaining the situation, the head of the governing Austrian People's Party in the Upper Austrian state parliament, Josef Stockinger, said his state has two basic arguments against GM crops. "Our first argument is that the risks of genetic manipulation are not yet fully researched," he said. "And we have concluded for ourselves that until we have clarity over risks, we do not want to pollute our land with genetically modified plants."

In practical terms, he said that if GM seeds are allowed to be planted, they cannot be prevented from mixing with ordinary plants and crops, through wind dispersion, transport, and so forth.

Stockinger also spoke about the second basic argument against GMOs: "In Upper Austria, we are the European region that has the highest number of biological farmers. We have a very high ecological culture, and we do not want to endanger that." He noted that Upper Austria has won international recognition for its biological and GM-free agricultural produce.

In a statement justifying its ban, the European Commission said member states can "derogate," or differ, from European Union harmonization measures, but only under certain strict conditions. It said these include the emergence of new scientific evidence, as well as the existence of particular country-specific conditions.

The EU said that "after thorough examination of the Austrian request, the commission concluded that these conditions were not met in this specific case." It said it had taken scientific advice into consideration before arriving at its decision that Upper Austria's blanket ban on GMOs was not justified.

The European Commission has previously said it sees no heightened risk to health from GM products approved for use in Europe. As spokeswoman Beate Gminder put it recently, "We do not think the GMOs allowed in Europe after scientific assessment pose any risk to health which is different from conventional foods."

Brussels' decision is sure to cause dismay and possibly generate resistance elsewhere in Europe. Regions in Italy and neighboring EU accession nation Slovenia had been planning to work with Upper Austria to create a giant GM-free zone. Similar plans were being discussed in Britain.

Stockinger, speaking from Linz, said there is no way of integrating the new technology with older farming methods. "It is absolutely impossible to mix in an orderly way conventional farming and biological farming with gene-technology farming, especially in a country that has small land parcels and a tight infrastructure," he said.

EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem said yesterday she has full respect for the concerns of the Austrian authorities about the protection of the environment and human health. She said she recognizes the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops is an important issue. But she said these are common concerns, shared by many regions across Europe, for which is it possible "to find a viable response within the existing legal framework."