This is the third time since 2005 that ministers have failed to find a majority for or against a Commission proposal to lift Austria's restrictions on two types on GM maize. Time is now running out as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled in September 2006 that the ban was illegal, and gave the EU a deadline of November 21 2007 to lift the ban or the WTO will take disciplinary action. In April 1998, the Commission authorised two types of maize - MON810, produced by US company Monsanto, and T25, produced by German drugs and chemical group Bayer - to be placed in the European market for all uses of the product (import, food processing and cultivation). Austria chose to enforce a ban on the import and processing of MON810 in June 1999, expressing concern about the effects on non-target organisms and the development of resistance to toxins by target organisms. It then banned T25 in April 2000 because of the risk of cut-crossing the maize with wild relatives and conventional crops. GM maize is currently cultivated in the EU for animal feed only. It 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. Under EU laws, a member state can apply a temporary ban on GM if it presents new scientific information to back its claims. Austria has failed to provide sufficient evidence, leading to calls to lift the ban. The Commission has now twice consulted with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the safety of the maize, and it concluded that there was no reason to believe that the continued sale of these products is likely to cause any adverse effects for human and animal health or the environment. The first proposal to force Austria to retract its ban was rejected by the Environment Council in June 2005. In October 2006, the Commission re-submitted its proposals to repeal the Austrian safeguard measures on the grounds that there are no scientific elements to justify the ban. But again, the Environment Council rejected the Commission proposal. The most recent proposal issued by the Commission concerned only Austria's ban on the food and feed aspects of the two products, not on cultivation. However, in last week's meeting, 21 out of 27 EU Environment ministers refused to force the ban to be lifted, leaving the decision to the European Commission ahead of the WTO's deadline. Once a decision has been made, Austria would have to respond within 20 days. Any non-compliance to the final decision could mean the debate would go to the European Court of Justice. Environment charities have urged the Commission to respect member states' wariness and allow the ban to stay in place. Helen Holder, GMO Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: "The European Commission has tried to make its proposal to lift the bans as palatable as possible by focusing only on imports instead of growing, but still member states haven't supported it. The Commission must respect the right of Austria to respond to scientific uncertainty and public opinion by keeping its bans in place." Last week, figures released by EuropaBio, showed that the cultivation of GM crops in Europe has increased 77 per cent in the past year, with over 110,000 hectares of biotech crops in seven EU member states. The biotech industry association claimed the use of GM crops is beneficial to farmers, giving them the freedom of choice to help them protect their crops and increase their competitiveness.
The decision on whether to force Austria to lift its national ban on genetically modified maize now lies in the hands of the European Commission, after EU environment ministers failed to agree at last week's Council meeting.