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EU Nations reject call to force Austria to lift gene-corn ban

European Union governments rejected a European Commission proposal to force Austria to end its ban on two gene-modified corn varieties, setting up a possible court challenge by regulators against the Austrian government. Vote clearly has implications on Hungary.

Austria has refused for more than six years to allow imports of two types of modified corn, or maize, that were approved by the EU in 1997 and 1998. One variety, developed by Monsanto Co., deters moths, while the other, engineered by Bayer CropScience AG, is resistant to herbicides that kill weeds. Yesterday's vote is a defeat for the commission, the EU's regulator, which must make sure its rules are respected. In September, the WTO urged the EU to comply with global trade rules and improve market access for producers of genetically engineered crops. „The commission will now consider its options in light of today's decision,” EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said in a statement issued in Brussels. Only the UK, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands voted for Austria to end its ban while Finland abstained. All other EU governments rejected the commission proposal calling for an end to the ban. The only way regulators can challenge the decision is to take Austria to the EU's highest court. Such a move may help the commission comply with the WTO ruling, which called on the bloc to improve its process for approving gene-altered foods and to eliminate national „safeguard” bans once scientists show products to be safe.

EU rules on modified-food approvals require countries to drop their bans once scientists at the Parma, Italy-based European Food Safety Authority have judged products safe. „What sort of message is being sent when a majority of national governments say they don't believe EFSA when it has said a product is safe?” said Simon Barber, a director at EuropaBio, a bioindustry group. „Plant science is benefiting us all, and should be allowed to move forward just as it is in the rest of the world.” The commission asked national governments in June 2005 to order five nations, including Austria, to end their bans on certain gene foods. Ministers refused to do so, instructing the commission instead to re-examine the scientific evidence. „It was very obvious last year that the member states supported the national bans; there was no need to question this again,” said Martina Holbach, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace. The environmental risks haven't been properly assessed. EFSA was created to assess food security and in no way has any competence on environmental risk assessment.”

EU governments haven't approved any gene-altered products since the end of an EU moratorium on modified goods two years ago. The products given the green light since the 1999-2004 ban - enforced by a „blocking minority” of countries and criticized in the WTO ruling -- have all been approved by the commission, which wins the right to act when national governments fail to reach a verdict. Before yesterday's vote, the commission had planned to initiate another vote against Hungary, which is also blocking gene- altered corn. „Yesterday's vote clearly has implications for the one on Hungary,” said Barbara Helfferich, Dimas's spokeswoman. (Bloomberg)