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July 1, 2003 12:00 AM
Tractor in a field.

The commercial growing of GM crops has been a controversial issue across Europe.

European MEPs are expected tomorrow (Wednesday) to give EU governments the right to severely restrict the growing of genetically modified crops in order to protect conventional or organic farmers from cross-contamination.

Voting to establish common rules for the use of GM products, the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg will back amendments tabled by Austrian Socialist Karin Scheele and North West Liberal Democrat Chris Davies calling for EU member states to be able to "take appropriate measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in other products." The wording reflects a compromise already agreed with the Council of Ministers and is therefore certain to be approved.

The European Commission is due to publish guidelines later this month on the co-existence of genetically modified, conventional and organic crops.

However, the European Parliament's vote will allow for different national approaches to be taken if they are based on scientific evidence.

Several EU countries, including Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are currently drafting legislation on co-existence. With French scientists last month reporting that genes from commercial sugar beet had been found in wild plants more than 1.5 kilometres away, the planting of GM crops could be severely restricted if extensive buffer zones are established.

Agreement on a range of common rules is needed to lift the de facto moratorium in Europe on the growing of GM crops and head off a trade dispute with the USA. However, with Euro-MPs backing ministers in calling for any foodstuffs containing more than 0.9% GM products to be clearly labelled an appeal to the World Trade Organisation may still be made by the Americans. With no proven risk to human health from GM products the

USA argues that such labelling will be a disguised form of trade protection.

Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman in the European Parliament, said that growers of conventional and organic crops had to be protected from the risk of cross-contamination and any consequent loss of income.

"There is a strong sense that the USA is pushing too hard and too fast to serve narrow commercial interests. There are no certain gains to be made from growing GM crops in Europe, and while the dangers may be exaggerated there are real fears that we risk making mistakes that could lead to unforeseen consequences for our environment.

"The customer knows best, and shoppers must have the information so that they can decide for themselves what products to buy. If this slows the development of GM products while more research is carried out that may be no bad thing."