|BRUSSELS - Food specialists from EU member states, deeply split over gene-modified (GM) foods, vote next week on a proposal to end the bloc\'s five-year biotech ban, but many months may still be needed to settle the issue, diplomats said on Friday.|
If they back the Commission\'s proposal, Monday\'s vote would effectively end the unofficial moratorium, to the delight of the United States, Argentina and Canada, which have taken the EU to the World Trade Organisation for refusing to authorise any new GM strains since 1998.
But a more likely outcome, diplomats say, is a split or negative vote, in which case the proposal would be passed to the EU\'s 15 farm ministers, who will have three months to decide whether to allow imports of Bt-11 maize, which is marketed by Swiss agrochemicals maker Syngenta (SYNZn.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) .
\"It will be touch and go. A lot of countries will wait (until Monday) and I don\'t think we\'ll know until they actually get to the vote,\" one diplomat said of the meeting.
If approved, the maize would be imported as a canned food product and not for planting. European retailers would not be able to sell it until mid-April.
But this would fly in the face of European consumer opinion, where opposition to GM produce is estimated at more than 70 percent and deters many supermarkets from stocking GM foods.
\"There are too many question marks hanging over this food,\" said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe.
EASY TO BLOCK
At the committee\'s last meeting in November, only six countries declared themselves in favour: Ireland, Britain, Finland, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands. There was no vote. \"It\'s relatively easy to have a blocking minority,\" said Eric Gall of environment group Greenpeace. \"You can expect roughly the same attitude among the ministers.\"
This week, Germany\'s Agriculture Minister Renate Kuenast said Berlin had yet to decide which way to vote on Monday and might even abstain. France, another big vote-wielder, is thought to have softened its anti-GM position. But nothing is sure.
Even without France and Germany, known GM-sceptics Italy and Austria could join with Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg to scupper the Commission\'s proposal. Then a new and time-consuming process is set in motion.
Firstly, the EU\'s 20 Commissioners must adopt the specific Bt-11 proposal, probably by the end of 2003.
Ministers then have their three months to approve or reject the Commission\'s proposal, but need the same majority as for the committee. If they disagree and give no clear view, the Commission gets to apply its rubberstamp. \"If there is no opinion from the council (of farm ministers)...you can expect the Commission to approve Bt-11. The Commission would have its hands free,\" said Greenpeace\'s Gall.
Story by Jeremy Smith
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE