A watershed for the biotechnology industry, or putting profits before people? European announcements on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) during March certainly divided opinion and grabbed headlines.

Not only did the month see a variety of product approvals, but it also witnessed indications that the approval process in Europe could be about to become faster – at least in part.

By the summer, the European Commission will issue a proposal giving its Member States a choice in whether to cultivate GMOs. Currently, the EU-wide system for approving GMOs requires a qualified majority of the 27 Member States that make up the Council to be in favour – at least 255 from a total of 345 votes. If the Council fails to approve, the decision then rests with the Commission.

The Commission is usually reluctant to ignore the Council and attempt to impose its will. Austria and Italy have said that they will defy the Commission approval, and this may have added fuel to proposals for possible change.

The forthcoming proposal may offer opt outs, allowing those Member States that want to cultivate an approved product to proceed and those that do not to abstain.

Along with the announcement of this proposal, came the adoption of decisions on Genetically Modified Amflora potato. The first authorizes its cultivation for industrial use and the second relates to the use of its by-products as feed. Byproducts will be allowed, but not tubers.

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The authorization procedure started back in 2003, and the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) issued its first favourable opinion in 2006. Since then, the Commission had been “very carefully and very seriously reflecting on the situation”, requesting a new opinion in 2008.

The current authorization is valued for 10 years, and developer BASF is thought to already have a number of contracts for the potato.

March also saw the Commission adopt three decisions on GM maize MON863xMON810, MON863xNK603, MON863xMON810xNK603, for food and feed uses and import and processing. These maize products result from the combination, by traditional breeding, of genetic modifications that are already authorized.

A look by at the tortuous route taken for Genetically Modified Amflora to get to market illustrates well the frustrations that many feel with European processes, not only those relating to GM and agriculture. However, there is some hope that market access my now become easier, even if not across the EU in its entirety.

The European summer is fast approaching and, following approval of the first GM product for a decade, the publication of the Commission’s proposals on choice are eagerly awaited.

Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli has said that his guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies will be responsible innovation. Let us hope that this is the case, and that between now and then there is not another period of very careful and very serious reflection, as resulted in the seven year approval process for Amflora.