The European Commission remains cautious over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), returning to its safety advisors for a third time for a verdict on three biotech products.
This was the outcome of a much anticipated debate held in Brussels this week to assess the current situation regarding GMOs and to look at three cultivation dossiers that have been long awaiting approval.
The Commission, however, was unable to reach any definite decisions and instead sent the three profiles back to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The board has already given two favourable opinions for the two GM maize varieties containing insecticides, developed by Syngenta and Pioneer/Dow, and for the BASF's Amflora potato, which includes genes that provide resistance to certain antibiotics.
The postponement, which is another in a spate of delayed EU decisions on GMOs, has frustrated supporters of biotechnology, but it also signals the Commission is taking a strong scientific approach to the situation.
Europabio, a political voice of European biotechnology, said it was a "disappointing signal".
"Europe is already lagging behind worldwide competition when it comes to biotech crops: more than 40 products are awaiting EU approval," it said.
"Furthermore, in the light of the current bottlenecks in the supply of food and feed, it is unacceptable to keep putting off decisions by asking the EFSA to reconsider dossiers… which had been positively assessed by EFSA years ago."
The decision is also unlikely to be welcomed by some of Europe's top traders, such as the US, where the industry has been loosing millions because producers who use GM crops are restricted in exporting them to the European Union.
Meanwhile, environmental campaigners see the delay as a step in the right direction. Many remain cautious over GM products, fearing their possible long term health risks and effects on the environment. On of the main concerns is regarding cross-contamination with conventional crops.
Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU GMO campaign director, said: "EFSA has always found in favour of GMOs and relies entirely on data from the agro-chemical industry. By sending back the three GM plants today the Commission has found that its food safety authority cannot be fully trusted although it does not dare to say so."
GMOs in Europe
At the moment, the only type of GM crop grown in the EU is maize, which was approved in 1998. It is not cultivated for human consumption but for animal feed.
The maize contains a gene that defends the crop against the European corn borer, an insect pest that eats the stem, present primarily in southern and middle Europe but moving northwards.
There have been no new biotech crops approved for cultivation in Europe since 1998, while worldwide there are more than 120 GM products for 23 crops.
The current situation facing GMO acceptance in Europe is inconsistent, with bans on the cultivation of GM crops implemented in France, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Greece.
Following a complaint by the US in 2003, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled that some European countries were breaking international trade rules by stopping the import of GM foods and crops.
In January, the Commission was given yet more time to bring member states in compliance with trade obligations on GM crops after failing to meet its deadline.
However, while no new GM approvals look likely to be made any time soon, the Commission has now asked Austria to lift its ban, according to EuropaBio.
Nathalie Moll, director of EuropaBio, added: "Although we welcome the measures addressed to imports such as the Commission decision to ask Austria to lift its ban on two biotech maize, and find a technical solution to the issue of low level presence before the summer, we would have expected the Commission to do more for European farmers so that they can actually cultivate more biotech crops and not just import them."
Despite delayed GM approvals, over 110,000 hectares of biotech crops were harvested in seven EU member states last year, compared to 62,000 hectares in 2006. This represents a 77 per cent increase.