European Union

EU to Clear Genetically Modified Sugar Beet Despite Opposition


EU ministers and national experts are due to approve a genetically modified (GMO) sugar beet variety this month despite a long running dispute over the use of biotechnology.

Officials say around 10 GMO products, mostly maize types but also cotton, soybeans and a high-starch potato, are scheduled for discussion at various levels of the EU in the next few months.

Although the bloc's member governments clash consistently over GMOs, never reaching the required majority under its weighted voting system to authorise new biotech products, that deadlock doesn't stop authorisations being granted.

Since 2004, the European Commission has approved around a dozen GMO products -- a move that brings it into line with EU law when, after a certain time, countries still fail either to endorse or reject a draft GMO authorisation.

The Commission, the EU's executive arm, has authorised a string of GMOs in this way, outraging green groups.

The first of this year's applications for GMO crops that will be approved, now a certainty, is a sugar beet called H7-1, developed jointly by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto and German plant breeding company KWS SAAT to resist glyphosate-containing herbicides.

Due to a complex legal procedure over deadlines for EU ministers to consider the matter, it will be EU justice ministers who will actually grant the authorisation at their meeting scheduled for Sept. 17 and 18. There will be no vote.

"I don't really see anything that has changed. The Austrians, and maybe other countries, will make a symbolic statement but it won't alter things," one EU diplomat said. "I think we're soon going to see more emphasis on cultivation dossiers," he told Reuters.

Some EU countries, such as Britain, Finland and the Netherlands, almost always vote in favour of approving new GMOs -- offset by a group of GMO-sceptics including Austria, Greece and Luxembourg, that vote against and force a stalemate.

In Europe, consumers are well known for their scepticism, if not hostility, to GMO crops, often dubbed "Frankenstein foods." But the international biotech industry says its products are perfectly safe and no different to conventional foods.

Potato Next

Perhaps this year's most controversial GMO is a potato, where the developing company -- German chemicals group BASF -- wants its product to be grown in Europe's fields.

The potato, engineered to yield high amounts of starch for processing in the paper industry and also for use as feed, needs two separate EU authorisations. It is not for human consumption.

The first, related to environmental impact, has also become a rubberstamp Commission approval that is now probably a matter of time although no date has yet been given. National EU food safety experts will discuss the second approval later this year.

When both approvals are given, the potato may then be grown in Europe -- the EU's first new "live" GMO crop in many years.

And later this month, at their first meeting after the summer break, EU agriculture ministers are due to discuss three GMO maize types, including two hybrids that again failed to gain approval at committee expert level earlier this year.

Also before the end of 2007, EU national experts will debate proposals to authorise five more GMOs: three Monsanto maize hybrids, a cotton strain and a soybean type. All would be used in foods, animal feeds or industrial processing, not cultivated.