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European Attitudes - Agricultural Biotech

Europe Inching Towards Lighter Regulation of Genetically Modified Crop Plants

"NBIAP News Report." U.S. Department of Agriculture (November 1994).

In the face of staunch public opposition and widespread bureaucratic obstacles at the national and European Union levels, the European agrochemical industry is working hard to create a climate of acceptance for genetically engineered crops. Many agrochemical executives complain that the European Union's Commission (EC), which drafts regulations, tends to overregulate and is suspicious of new technologies.

Indeed, the European Union has fallen behind other parts of the world in research and development of genetically engineered agricultural products. Agrochemical giants such as Germany's Hoescht and Switzerland's Ciba-Geigy have been forced to move to countries such as the United States, which has a pragmatic regulatory scheme, to develop and test their products.

The current backbone of regulatory oversight in Europe for genetically engineered crop plants is the Union's "Directive on the Deliberate Release into the Environment of Genetically Modified Organisms." This regulatory process carries the organisms from the research and development level through field testing and commercialization. Before placing genetically engineered products on the market, manufacturers or importers must demonstrate that such products do not pose risks to human health or the environment.

EU directives are legally binding but require further action by member states concerning implementation and timing. For a transgenic crop plant to complete the journey from field to market in Europe, permission must be obtained first from individual countries for field trials. Depending on the country, this can take years to complete. Next an application must be made to enlarge and prepare the crop for marketing. At this stage, other EU countries can raise objections. Finally, another permit is required to actually market the product.

Recognition is dawning within the EU that if the Union is to avoid becoming simply a market for, rather than a producer of, biotech products, then regulations must be eased. EU officials now are in the process of lightening permit requirements for field tests of organisms and genetic constructs that present low risk to the environment and human health. This basically would replace permits with a notification process and reduce the time periods involved in regulatory procedures. These moves are backed by European industry, which has called for scientifically sound regulations that do not discriminate against products because of the technology used to develop them.

Not all parties in the EU are enthusiastic about the proposed changes. Germany in particular, with its strong Green Party, may be difficult to win over. There have been four instances of vandalism against genetically engineered crops in Germany. France, the United Kingdom, and Belgium are more supportive, although the recent field trial in the UK of a virus modified with a scorpion toxin gene to enhance death rates of target insects on plants has energized opposition to the environmental release of genetically engineered organisms in the UK. In addition, a number of EU member states haven't yet fully implemented the current regulations even though the deadline for implementation was October 1991.

As one Italian official said about the proposal to ease the EU's biotechnology regulations, "We are at the beginning of the discussion on the issue. Our aim is to have the welcoming approach of the U.S."

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