French govt move to ban Monsanto GMO draws fire

PARIS Sun Jan 13, 2008 12:46pm EST

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PARIS Jan 13 (Reuters) - French government moves to ban the country's only genetically modified (GMO) crop drew fire on Sunday from the speaker of the country's parliament, farmers and biotechnology industry groups.

The government said on Friday it would activate a "safeguard clause" in European law to suspend the commercial use of MON 810, a maize developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto (MON.N).

Writing in the Sunday newspaper Journal Du Dimanche, National Assembly President Bernard Accoyer of the ruling centre-right UMP party said decisions to ban GMOs should be based on "irrefutable" evidence, implicitly criticising the government for basing its decision on a panel's controversial opinion.

"The scientists on this (panel) have disassociated themselves publicly from the conclusions expressed by the chairman of this body," wrote Accoyer.

"Can our country really bind its future to this fragile and hasty opinion...?" he added, arguing GMOs offered potential public health benefits and calling for parliament to establish its own "high authority" to oversee their authorisation.

When a country activates the safeguard procedure it has to provide the European Commission, the EU's executive body, with proof there is new scientific evidence justifying a ban.

If the Commission and European Union member states deemed France's arguments invalid, France would probably receive an order to lift its ban, a decision it could then appeal.

INDUSTRY, FARMERS UPSET

In an interview with Reuters, Jacques Beauville, a farmer near Toulouse who had planted 80 percent of his 127 hectares with MON 810, accused Paris of caving in to anti-globalisation protestor Jose Bove, who had gone on hunger strike to protest the use of GMOs. Bove ended his protest on Saturday.

"If we obey this moratorium then we will end up polluting more and using more water. Even worse, as yields fall we will from next August have to buy Argentine maize, which is made using GMOs," Beauville said.

Around 22,000 hectares -- or 1 percent of France's cultivated land -- was sown with MON 810 last year.

In a statement on Sunday, the U.S. based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) said there were no safety concerns that could justify France's MON 810 ban.

"BIO urges the U.S. government and the European Commission to object to this unnecessary and unscientific policy at the highest levels," it said in a statement.

France's announcement on Friday coincided with a deadline for the EU to comply with a WTO ruling to end a ban on imports of genetically modified (GMO) food. The EU is not due to respond until Jan. 21, leaving it open to possible trade sanctions.

The MON 810 technology, which is also used by other seed makers, is designed to resist the European corn borer, a pest that attacks maize stalks and thrives in warmer climates.

Monsanto says the protein contained in its maize has selective toxicity but is harmless to humans, fish and wildlife.

The Commission has approved the use of MON 810 around the 27-nation bloc, but several EU countries have expressed concern about its safety, including Austria, Greece and Hungary.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his government's decision in a speech on Saturday while emphasising he was not hostile in principle to the development of GMOs.

"(The decision) means simply that when the precautionary principle is at stake I will make the political choice to put our country at the front of the debate on the environment," he said in a speech to a UMP conference. (Reporting by Nick Antonovics and Nicolas Fichot; editing by Rory Channing)

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