BRUSSELS: The European Union ended its controversial ban on new genetically modified (GM) foods yesterday, allowing imports of a tinned maize without touching the more contentious issue of new GMO (genetically modified organism) crops.
In the EU's first approval in more than five years, its executive arm authorized imports of a maize known as Bt-11, marketed by Swiss agro-chemicals giant Syngenta, for sale as tinned sweet corn in supermarkets across the bloc.
"GM sweet corn has been subjected to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world," said EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne in a statement. Bt-11 maize imports are now authorized for a period of 10 years.
"It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize," he said. "Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice."
The European Commission's decision follows months of deadlock between member states and flies in the face of European opinion, where consumers are largely hostile to biotech foods with opposition rated at more than 70 per cent. Supermarkets and food manufacturers have responded to this and still tend to avoid stocking produce that contains GMOs.
Although the EU decision confounds the hopes of GMO-sceptic states such as Austria and Denmark, it should delight some of the EU's top trading partners such as the United States, which has challenged the bloc's ban at the World Trade Organization. It also comes at a time when the world's biotech giants are facing their own problems over the controversial technology.
Last week, US biotech giant Monsanto shelved its launch of the world's first GMO wheat. Just days later, it filed a suit against rival Syngenta claiming a violation of its patent on a technique producing a popular type of GMO maize.
But the real battle for EU biotech policy, diplomats say, is when the bloc gives a green light to plant live GMO crops. That will be the acid test of whether the moratorium is really over.
Environmental groups who have long campaigned for EU's member states to keep the bloc's de facto moratorium in place were outraged by the Commission's decision."The European Commission is supposed to represent the interests of European citizens and the environment, but has chosen in this case to defend US farmers and narrow agro- business interests," said Eric Gall, GMO political adviser for lobby group Greenpeace's European policy unit.