|BRUSSELS - The European Union took one more step toward removing a five-year unofficial ban on new biotech crops and products on Wednesday when its executive backed a proposal to allow imports of gene-altered sweetcorn.|
EU ministers now have three months to consider the proposal to authorize the maize, known as Bt-11 and marketed by Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta.
A \"yes\" verdict would end the EU\'s biotech ban, which has angered its top trading partners. If ministers cannot agree by the deadline, the executive Commission will then have the right to rubberstamp its own proposal.
\"The EU has put in place a clear, transparent and stringent system to regulate genetically modified food, feed and plants,\" Commission President Romano Prodi said in a statement.
\"It is only logical that this safe system continues to be applied in practice and that the EU moves ahead with pending authorizations,\" he said.
If allowed into the EU, the maize would be for eating straight from the can, not for planting.
Industry observers say authorization is just a matter of time as a clear \"no\" vote by ministers is ruled out by the balance of national opinions on the issue.
Syngenta shares rose on the news, outperforming Swiss blue chips and Europe\'s chemical sector, although the firm said the Commission\'s backing of Bt-11 did not yet mean more business.
More applications for GM approvals would follow soon, the Commission said, showing its determination to press ahead with a pro-GM policy and clear a backlog of applications that have piled up since the EU called a halt to new approvals in 1998.
A committee of EU member state experts would debate in February whether to allow imports of another GM maize called NK603, made by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto, it said. Again, this application is for use as a food, not for growing.
The United States, backed by Canada and Argentina, has challenged the EU\'s ban at the World Trade Organization, saying the EU is acting illegally. Farmers in the United States say the ban costs them millions of dollars a year in lost sales.
The acid test of whether the EU has lifted its biotech ban, diplomats say, is when the bloc allows imports of live GM organisms (GMOs) as seed for planting in Europe.
Several EU governments are concerned about a lack of rules on permitted GMO presence in seeds and how farmers can separate GM, traditional and organic crops to avoid cross-contamination, and have called for hard-and-fast EU laws for both these areas.
The Commission also held a debate on its biotech policy, its first in more than three years, but the 20-strong group did not spend long looking at the unresolved seeds and crop separation issues -- the most controversial in relation to live GMOs.
\"The Commission did have a brief debate but they didn\'t go through the points in detail,\" Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder told a daily news briefing.
Story by Jeremy Smith
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE