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EU Food Agency Prepares to Assess Live GMO Crops

EU Food Agency Prepares to Assess Live GMO Crops
BRUSSELS - Europe\'s new food safety agency will soon start its first risk analysis of live gene-spliced crops as the European Union debates lifting a five-year ban, officials said last week.

With EU countries split down the middle on whether to lift their ban on new genetically modified (GM) foods and crops, the views of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) are seen as key to the debate since it is independent and non-political.

So far, EFSA has looked at GM types where the requested uses have not included growing crops from GM seeds. Cultivation of GM organisms (GMOs) is highly controversial, with many issues to be resolved over crop contamination and environmental liability.

\"Three requests for a scientific option are expected to be forwarded to the Authority in January 2004,\" EFSA said in its 2004 draft management plan. Two of these include cultivation as a specified use, according to data from the European Commission.

The two products are Bt-11 maize, marketed by Switzerland\'s Syngenta, and 1507 maize, designed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto. Both applications are for cultivation, use in feed and for industrial processing.

The Commission said it was still waiting for the final version of the applications with expert scientific opinion from the countries that submitted them - France and Spain - so could not say exactly when it would make its requests to EFSA.

In December, EFSA gave a clean bill of health to a Monsanto maize type. It is now assessing three other products: two maize types and one oilseed rape, all from Monsanto.

Green groups say it is premature to assess live GMOs while there are difficult decisions ahead on allowing imports of Bt-11 maize under a separate application, for eating out of a can.

After an inconclusive committee meeting last month, the Bt-11 issue has passed to EU ministers who now have to decide - over the next three months - what is a test case for the bloc\'s five-year unofficial ban on new biotech foods and crops.

Diplomats say approving a live GMO will be the acid test on whether the EU has really lifted its moratorium, regardless of whether Bt-11 imports - not for cultivation - are allowed.

Story by Jeremy Smith

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