The European Parliament passed laws Wednesday to force the labeling of all genetically modified food in a move that could lead the E.U. to lift an unofficial ban on GM crops. But it may not be enough to halt a U.S. trade suit.
The regulations will require the food industry to segregate genetically modified from conventional crops and put strict limits on the accidental mixing of GM into traditional food imports.
Delighted anti-GM campaigners said the new rules would keep the E.U. closed to GM food, as consumers would choose not to buy it. "This new legislation paves the way for a GM-free Europe," said Geert Ritsema of green group Friends of the Earth.
The United States, which is taking the E.U. to the World Trade Organization over its five-year de facto ban on new GM varieties, slammed the regulations as "difficult and expensive for suppliers and confusing for consumers."
"We have made clear to the E.U. our concerns about the workability of these regulations and their impact on trade," a U.S. official said, without commenting directly on what impact the move would have on the WTO case.
U.S. farmers say the closed E.U. market costs them $300 million a year in lost exports, mostly maize. GM crops are not labeled in the United States, where the public has not opposed crops engineered for pest resistance and increased yields.
The E.U. has refused to approve any new GM crops for cultivation or use in food in the 15-country bloc since 1998, when European consumer fears about food safety were at their height following the mad cow disease scandal.
A group of GM-skeptical countries led by France said the moratorium would remain until the E.U. had put in place a raft of new rules on safety testing, labeling, and tracing GM organisms "from farm to fork."
The new rules allow no more than 0.9 percent accidental mixing of GM in non-GM shipments to the E.U. They also let E.U. states impose "appropriate measures" to ensure GM crops planted in the bloc do not cross-pollinate with conventional strains.
Industry believes this will only lead to relatively minor additional national rules, such as requiring minimum distances between GM and organic crops, but campaigners say it could allow GM-skeptic states like Austria to create large GM-free zones.
The laws could be the final piece in a regulatory jigsaw that will lead those states to start granting permits again for GM crops to be imported or grown in the E.U., a procedure that has been on hold since 1998.
Groups such as Friends of the Earth fear crops genetically altered to fend off pests could cross-breed with wild relatives and create super-weeds that cannot be controlled. They want binding E.U.-wide rules on GM farming methods to ensure there is no cross-pollination They also want a legal regime that would make farmers or biotech seed makers financially liable for any future damage they cause to nature.
Parliament's vote needs the formal approval of European Union member governments, which diplomats said was likely to come this month. The legislation would probably come into force in September, and firms would have six months to apply the new rules.