Major legal blow to European anti-GM crops lobby

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Europe's top court adviser dealt a huge blow to the anti-GM foods lobby Tuesday, saying states broke EU law by halting genetically-modified crop cultivation without first seeking action in Brussels.

European Court of Justice advocate-general Paolo Mengozzi's opinion provided a major fillip to a lawsuit-hungry genetically modified foods industry and stunned enraged environmental campaigners.

As countries defend a flood of legal action by GM-food giants led by US-based Monsanto, the intervention marked a potentially fatal blow for those fighting to contain the march of so-called 'Frankenfoods.'

"The French authorities could not suspend the cultivation of genetically-modified maize MON 810 on national territory without having first asked the European Commission to adopt emergency measures citing a risk to health and the environment," Mengozzi said.

Judges are not bound by the legal opinion, but in the vast majority of cases the advocate-general's argument stands.

Mengozzi said France could not block MON 810 maize by invoking a safeguard clause, inserted into existing European Union law in 2004, because the strain was first authorised in 1998 under an earlier directive.

"European law has been improved -- and the newer article gives states the right to present new scientific proof of a risk to health," Friends of the Earth expert Mute Schimpf told AFP.

"France took its decision following widespread consultation of the industry, the scientific community, farmers and consumers.

"Why should a company have a right under European Union law to attack a democratic state in this way?

"If the judges take the same view, it would mean not one single member state has the right to ban GM crops, except the two already authorised," she railed, admitting "huge surprise."

The safeguard clause states that where "new or additional information" emerging after the original consent shows a product "constitutes a risk to human health or the environment," an EU state "may provisionally restrict or prohibit" that genetically-modified organism.

Monsanto applied for MON 810 re-authorisation in 2007, for 10 years, but France the next year outlawed its growing, amid public outcry in a famously proud traditional farming nation.

The court said Monsanto was not informed of the legal basis for its exclusion from the French market and in any case that the wrong foundation was used: it should have been based on separate legal provisions covering raw material foodstuffs and genetically-modified animal feed.

Only the European Commission can make that call, the court said, because only Europe-wide action could act sufficiently to protect health and the environment.

EU health commissioner John Dalli's spokesman refused to comment awaiting a definitive judgment.

Europe is in a bind on GM foods. Just two crops are currently authorised -- a maize strain for animal feed and a potato for paper-making. Decisions on a lengthening list of others are in deadlock.

Six more states -- Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg -- have also banned Monsanto maize cultivation.

In a bid to end the impasse, the commission has proposed that individual territories may use cultural and other non-scientific reasons to ban growing, provided they allow EU-wide movement of permitted materials.

Brussels wants restrictions removed because it fears they flout World Trade Organization rules.

Authorisations for marketing GM products are also stuck in the logjam, although governments voted last month to allow crops containing tiny traces of genetically-modified produce to enter the European food chain for the first time.

A top US trade official recently lobbied openly for unfettered GM-foodstuffs access to the EU market of half a billion consumers.

"When Europeans come to the United States, they come and enjoy our cuisine with no concerns whatsoever," Deputy US Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said. "Why should (you) have different standards in Europe?"

© 2011 AFP

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