BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Union’s head office said Friday it would approve a type of genetically modified corn for human consumption, ending a six-year biotech moratorium that the United States has challenged at the World Trade Organization.
European farmers will still be prohibited from growing the Bt11 insect-resistant corn, however. And companies trying to import such foods face an uphill battle in convincing European shoppers that the products are safe.
Under new EU rules that took effect last month, “any import of canned vegetables will have to show clearly on the label in the list of ingredients that the corn has been harvested from a genetically modified plant,” European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said.
That would likely be the kiss of death for any company that tried to sell it in Europe, where genetically modified foods are widely mistrusted and avoided. Many supermarket chains require suppliers to guarantee their products are biotech-free.
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity in Brussels called the commission’s announcement sign of progress but said Washington would press ahead in seeking to have the EU declared in violation of international trade rules.
The industry trade group EuropaBio welcomed the announcement as a “step forward,” although a spokesman conceded the corn was unlikely to hit store shelves anytime soon.
Opposition remains fierce despite the enactment last year of a new approval process and the labeling requirements, considered to be the most stringent in the world.
“If the commission decides to force this down our throats, then they can only expect the public’s confidence in (genetically modified) foods to sink even further,” said Adrian Bebb, anti-biotech campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
The commission announced its intention to lift the ban last month after EU governments failed to agree on Bt11, the first application submitted under the new rules. The strain was developed by Switzerland-based Syngenta.
Kemppinen said the commission would approve the sale for human consumption — canned or fresh — at its meeting Wednesday, under provisions that authorize the EU executive to decide if member governments cannot agree.
Cultivation by farmers would still be forbidden, although an application is pending.
The decision will be valid in all 25 EU countries for 10 years, he said.
The EU has been under pressure from the Bush administration and other major agricultural exporters to lift the ban, which they charge is unscientific and thus illegal under WTO rules.
Bt11 was considered an easy test for the EU, since it had been approved for other uses — animal feed and for human consumption of derivatives such as corn oil and syrup — before the EU halted its approval process in 1998.
But last month, France, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg, Greece and Denmark continued to oppose the application. Spain, Belgium and Germany abstained, while Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Finland voted to approve it.
The executive commission has long urged an end to the moratorium, insisting the new traceability and labeling rules provide adequate protection for consumers.
It also worried failure to restart the approval process would undermine its chances for defending itself at the WTO. The Bush administration also opposes the labeling and traceability rules, which it says are unworkable, costly and subject to abuse.
U.S. corn exports to Europe plummeted from 3.3 million tons in 1995 to just 25,000 tons in 2002, costing U.S. farmers an estimated $300 million annually in lost exports.
Bt11 is the first of some 34 applications to start working its way through the new approval process, but EU governments have deadlocked on each one considered so far.