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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 19:33 GMT
France's GM veto ruled wrong
anti-GM maize demo
Unauthorised Novartis GM maize sparks French protest
By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby

France has been told by the European Court of Justice that it has no right to block sales of three genetically modified (GM) crop varieties which have won EU approval.

The case goes back to 1998, when the French Government refused to ratify an EU decision giving approval to three types of maize developed by the Swiss group Novartis.

France referred the matter to the court, the EU's highest legal authority, a decision complicated by the fact that it was France which had originally sought EU approval for the crops on behalf of Novartis.

Bound by its backing

It was that initial backing for the maize which proved France's undoing, as the Court has now explained.

In a statement, it ruled: "A member state which has forwarded an application with a favourable opinion must authorise the GMO to be placed on the market after the Commission has adopted a favourable decision."

The EU has not in fact authorised any new GM crops since 1998, while work continues on a new directive.


european court
Europe's senior court finds against France
The Novartis maize varieties were among the first to obtain EU approval. Even now, they remain banned by Austria and Luxembourg.

Earlier this month the EU postponed a decision on approving new GM rape and beet varieties.

The Court's ruling that France should remain bound by its original support for the maize has aroused controversy.

Greenpeace and trades unions representing French farmers argued that the approval process should not deprive the member state submitting the original request of the power of veto.

Qualification by the Court

But Novartis itself, supported by its fellow multinational Monsanto, argued successfully that the French Government must respect the EU's approval.

However, the Court did qualify its judgement, saying that a member state could withhold final consent "if new information reveals a risk after the Commission has adopted its decision."

Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth UK, told BBC News Online: "If the application for these Novartis varieties had been made today, people would have taken quite a different attitude.


anti-GM demo in london
The ruling has implications across Europe
"There's growing evidence that they can cause indirect environmental effects, especially on beneficial insects. And one variety contains an antibiotic-resistant gene.

"Since the EU gave its approval, the attitude of the member states has got a lot more stringent.

"So the French request for more risk assessment is entirely justifiable. We hope they'll fight on, and try to get the whole case reviewed."

Decision welcomed

Professor Vivian Moses chairs the panel of CropGen, which says it has been established "to make a balanced case for crop biotechnology."

In a statement, he said: "CropGen welcomes the ruling of the European Court of Justice that confirms the value of scientific evidence in arriving at decisions regarding biotech crops.

"This is a good example of regulatory procedures working well to ensure that sound science prevails.

"The court's decision reinforces an existing authorisation and prevents it being overturned except on the grounds of new scientific evidence."

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See also:

17 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Farmers 'abandon GM crops'
07 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Demand for 'rational' GM debate
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