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EU may take two years to develop biotech crop rules

Europe’s farmers will not see any more clarity on EU rules for separating traditional, organic and biotech crops until at least 2009 as experts sift through scientific data on specific plant varieties, officials say.

The European Commission, the EU executive, issued guidelines in July 2003 on how farmers should separate the three types. The idea was for national governments to make their own laws to facilitate growing of genetically modified (GMO) crops if farmers wanted to do so. At the moment, maize is the only GMO crop that is grown on the territory of the EU-27. The guidelines are not legally binding and most countries have been very slow to draft and adopt laws on an area known in EU jargon as co-existence. Some have not bothered at all.

Commission officials say only seven EU countries have co-existence laws in place: Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and several regions in Austria. A further eight countries have notified their plans. Many of these countries have still to develop crop-specific 'good farming' practices, such as field isolation distances and crop-cleaning procedures. Very few have specific rules on economic liability in cases of cross-contamination, they say.

For some years, the Commission has come under pressure from several countries to draft an EU-wide coexistence law. Early last year, it disappointed many by saying this was unnecessary. But it did pledge to compile far more specific growing guidelines for farmers. It doesn't look as if that will happen soon, work is not due to start in earnest until the H2 of 2007 and then, maybe, take up to two years. „Now we need some practical and technical elements for the only crop that is allowed for cultivation in the Community,” said Daniele Bianchi, responsible for GMO policy in the cabinet of EU Agriculture Commission Mariann Fischer Boel.

„It will take more than 1.5 or two years to come to some kind of guidelines or conclusions on this issue,” he told a conference last week. While there is no plan to revise the general non-binding 2003 guidelines, the latest project envisages more technical detail on crop segregation, a senior Commission official said. If EU countries did not intend to develop national crop laws, the Commission guidelines could be a basis for „voluntary standards” for good farming practice, a tacit admission that no country would be forced to adopt a coexistence law, he said.

Last jigsaw pieces: Another longstanding problem in EU biotech policy is the lack of common labeling thresholds for seeds, or how much biotech material can be tolerated in seed batches. The debate over the EU's last major GMO law has been simmering for at least four years and has been so controversial that the Commission, usually united on GMO policy, cannot agree. Thresholds would be set so that the labeling threshold for final food and feed products at the end of the production chain, which the EU has set at 0.9%, can be respected. What is at stake are the percentages of GMO content that can reasonably be allowed in crops like maize and rapeseed before the seeds must be labeled as biotech.

Any seed batches with GMO material below those thresholds would not have to be labeled. None of this means that the EU is about to approve more GMO types for cultivation since 'live' GMOs remain a highly divisive and controversial area for both the Commission and the EU-27. Still, coexistence laws and seed thresholds are widely seen as the last pieces of the jigsaw in the EU's plethora of GMO laws. Some EU states say it is essential to have at least seed thresholds in place before new 'live' GMOs can be contemplated. (dailytimes.com.pk)