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19th Oct 2019

EU environment ministers gear up for heated GMO debate

  • Austria's moratorium on GMO products risks breaking international trade laws (Photo: EUobserver)

EU environment ministers are gearing up for a heated debate, which should conclude on the future of a ban on two GMO-maize varieties in Austria - something with profound implications for the union's dispute on GMOs at the World Trade Organisation.

On Tuesday (30 October), the European Commission will once again propose that Austria be forced to drop its national ban on the import and processing into food and feed of two types of genetically modified maize - MON810 and T25 - in order to conform to WTO rules.

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All 27 environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday will subsequently vote on the issue, with the so-called qualified majority of votes needed to either adopt or reject the Brussels' proposal.

The table is split fifty-fifty, however.

"There is no great majority in favour and no great majority against", one commission official said ahead of the ministerial meeting, adding that many ministers are set to make up their minds only at the last minute.

Long dispute

This is the third time that Austria finds itself in the spotlight over GMO maize, with the dispute dating back to 1999 when Vienna announced it would provisionally prohibit any use of the two controversial products.

Meanwhile, a new EU directive on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms entered into force and Brussels in 2004 requested Austria to reconsider its safeguard clause in light of the new legal framework.

However, a majority of EU ministers backed Vienna and swept away commission proposals to scrap the Austrian ban in 2005 and 2006, arguing the Austrian measure is justified due to specific agricultural and regional ecological characteristics.

According to Daniel Kapp from the Austrian environment ministry, the green light for cultivation of GMO products would damage GMO-free agricultural production.

"When it comes to smoking, we protect non-smokers against those who smoke", Mr Kapp told EUobserver, adding "the same concept should be applied to cultivation of GMOs".

WTO

The issue is closely linked to a landmark ruling by the World Trade Organisation in 2006.

The international trade watchdog backed the US, Canada and Argentina in their efforts to force Europe to accept genetically modified organisms, stating that Austria's moratorium on such products would break international trade laws.

In the face of continued backing for Vienna among EU member states, the European Commission has now re-drafted its proposal, limiting its requirements only to food and feed aspects of the Austrian prohibition.

The cultivation ban would be allowed to remain in place.

Should member states fail to reach a qualified majority position on Tuesday, it will be up to the commission to decide on the matter under EU rules on GMOs.

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