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EU seen moving towards end of gene crop ban

EU seen moving towards end of gene crop ban
BRUSSELS - The EU\'s six-year block on new biotech foods may come to an end next week, when the way will be cleared for the EU executive to approve a variety of gene maize if farm ministers fail to break the deadlock on the issue.

EU ministers will debate and possibly vote on the maize, known as Bt-11, on Monday. The maize would be for eating from the can, not for growing in Europe\'s fields.

If they cannot agree, the European Commission has the power to allow imports of Bt-11 and lift an unofficial moratorium that has kept new biotech crops and foods out of the EU since 1998.

So far, that appears the most likely outcome, diplomats say.

An approval, whether by a consensus of EU governments or by default, would be warmly welcomed by key trade partners like the United States, which - along with Canada and Argentina - has challenged EU biotech policy at the World Trade Organisation.

Little has changed politically since a top-level committee of EU food safety specialists failed to muster enough support in December to approve Bt-11, a type of sweet maize marketed by Swiss agrochemicals agrochemicals giant Syngenta (SYNZn.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) .

\"Some ministers may change their minds but it wouldn\'t change the outcome, which is almost certain that the Commission will adopt it (approval request) under its own competence,\" one said. \"It\'s just a question of what the final line-up will be.\"


Under the EU\'s weighted voting system, a qualified majority of member state officials was required at the December committee meeting to approve Bt-11 maize. They were roughly split 50-50.

Six backed the Commission\'s proposal to authorise Bt-11: Spain, Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.

France, Austria, Greece, Portugal, Denmark and Luxembourg all voted against, while Belgium, Italy and Germany abstained.

The key votes on Monday, if indeed a vote is taken, will come from France and Germany. Both nations, along with Britain and Italy, wield the maximum amount of votes in EU decisions. At a similar meeting in February, France voted in favour of approving another gene-spliced food, NK603 maize from U.S. biotech giant Monsanto (MNSN.BO: Quote, Profile, Research) . Again, the meeting ended in deadlock.

Germany abstained in both Bt-11 and NK603 votes and currently holds the balance of power between the \"pro\" and \"anti\" biotech camps. With NK603, the overall voting was much closer than for Bt-11 - had Berlin changed its mind and backed an approval, the EU\'s moratorium would have been lifted.

Green groups said Paris was unlikely to alter its view on Bt-11 after an opinion from its own national food safety agency.

\"We don\'t expect changes in the country positions compared with December,\" said Eric Gall at international environment group Greenpeace. \"In the case of Bt-11 France voted against. So even without Germany, we should still get a blocking minority.\"

Story by Jeremy Smith

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