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By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS, Oct 25 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday he would suspend the planting of genetically modified (GMO) pest-resistant crops until the results of an appraisal of the issue later this year or early in 2008.
Unveiling the country’s new environment policy, Sarkozy said no GMO crops would be planted in France until the government had received the results of an evaluation by a new authority on GMOs set to be launched later this year.
“I don’t want to be in contradiction with EU laws, but I have to make a choice. In line of the precautionary principle, I wish that the commercial cultivation of genetically modified pesticide GMOs be suspended,” he said.
The only GMO crop grown in the European Union is a maize using the so-called MON 810 technology developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto (MON.N), which is designed to resist the European corn borer, a pest that attacks maize stalks and thrives in warmer climates in southern EU countries.
Monsanto says the protein contained in its maize has selective toxicity but is harmless to humans, fish and wildlife.
Just 22,000 hectares -- 1.5 percent of France’s cultivated maize land -- have been sown with GMO maize this year but some farmers have urged greater use of GMO crops to boost yields.
During a visit to Paris on Wednesday, European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said a full ban on GMO crops would clearly go against the rules and that France would lose in court if it implemented such a ban.
The future of GMOs has long been the subject of heated debate in France and its reluctance, along with other European countries, to use GMO crops compares starkly with the United States, which has a far higher take-up of GMO technology.
A ban on GMO maize growing for the coming months would not affect maize production in France because sowings do not take place until spring.
Sarkozy stressed that his move did not mean a halt to GMO research.
“This suspension of commercial cultivation of pesticide GMOs does not mean -- I want to be clear on this -- that we must condemn all GMOs, notably future GMOs,” he said.
During his election campaign last year, Sarkozy said he had “doubts and reservations” about the commercial use of GMO products which for him “had little interest”, but he stressed that he had wanted research to continue.
Several European Union countries have dug in their heels on whether their farmers may grow MON 810 maize, one of Europe’s oldest GMO crops.
Hungary, one of the EU-27’s biggest grain producers, outlawed the planting of MON 810 seed in January 2005.
Germany earlier this year decided that maize produced from MON 810 seeds could only be sold if there was an accompanying monitoring plan to research its effects on the environment.
And Austria may soon face a third attempt by EU regulators to force it to lift bans on two GMO maize types, including Monsanto’s MON 810 and T25 maize made by German drugs and chemicals group Bayer BAYG.DE.