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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Debate on Biotech Food Divides European Union

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A divided European Union failed to agree Monday on lifting its 5-year-old moratorium on new biotech foods, dragging out a dispute that Washington charges violates world trade rules and contributes to starvation in Africa.

A committee of national experts split 6-6 with three abstentions on allowing the sale of canned sweet corn from a strain developed by the Swiss-based Syngenta company.

Spain, Britain, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Ireland were in favor; Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Austria, Portugal, France against and Germany, Italy and Belgium abstained.

The lack of a decision means the application will be kicked up to EU ministers, probably in January, said EU spokeswoman Beate Gminder. If the ministers do not make a decision in 90 days, the EU's head office -- which made the proposal to approve the corn -- has the final word.

"We feel that all the conditions have been met," Gminder said. "We do have clear labeling, we do have clear specific rules agreed."

The proposal was the first to be considered since EU governments enacted strict labeling and traceability rules for products with genetically modified ingredients last summer.

The European Commission has sought to reassure the United States that the new rules, which take effect in April, would bring an end to the de facto moratorium imposed in 1998 amid public fears about long-term environmental and health effects of biotechnology.

But the Bush administration, charging the EU ban is unscientific and hurts American exporters, started legal action in August at the World Trade Organization to get it lifted. Biotech crops, including corn and soybeans genetically modified to resist insects or specific weed-killers, have been widely grown for years in the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush has also argued that the ban keeps African nations from planting genetically modified crops -- even though such crops have higher yields -- out of fear of losing European markets.

Environmental groups in Europe, which has suffered through mad cow disease and other deadly food scares in recent years, called on the Commission to resist U.S. pressure. "The public doesn't want to eat [genetically modified] foods and question marks remain over its safety," said Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth. "The Commission must put the well-being of European citizens and their environment before the business interests of the U.S. government and the biotech industry."

Diplomats said the Commission refused a request to delay a vote on the proposal, which was first presented in November, leading to the three abstentions because ministries involved had not yet agreed on a position on Syngenta's corn, which is known as Bt11.

Another corn -- U.S.-based Monsanto's Roundup Ready -- was given a clean bill of health last week by the European Food Safety Authority for use as food or feed and could be submitted to the national experts for a vote in February or March, Gminder said.

Such moves are intended to demonstrate the ban is being lifted before the WTO panels begin hearing the complaints from the United States, Canada and Argentina.