The European Union has ended a six-year ban on genetically modified food products by approving imports of a strain of bio-engineered sweet corn made by a Swiss firm. The decision has been welcomed by Europe's biotechnology industry, but criticized by environmentalists and others.
The European Commission, the EU executive body, says it has accepted an application by the Swiss agrochemical company Syngenta to market its Bt-11 genetically modified canned corn in supermarkets across the 25-nation bloc.
The decision means that the sweet corn, which was modified to resist damage by insects, can be imported but not grown in the European Union. And Syngenta's product will have to be clearly labeled as being genetically engineered.
EU health and consumer-protection commissioner David Byrne hails the decision as marking an important day for consumer choice in Europe.
"This GM sweet corn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world," he said. "It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize. Food safety is therefore not an issue. It is a question of consumer choice."
Genetically modified foods are highly unpopular in Europe. A recent opinion poll by the European Commission showed that 70 percent of the population of the union opposes the introduction of such products. Most experts attribute that feeling to a penchant for traditional food-growing practices as well as a series of incidents in recent years such as mad cow disease and poisoned poultry.
But Mr. Byrne says it is now up to the European consumer to choose whether to buy the clearly labeled product or not.
"Any imports of the canned vegetable will have to show clearly on the labeling that the corn has been harvested from a genetically modified plant," he said. "The consumer is therefore free to choose what he or she wants to buy. By giving that information, it is enough information to enable the consumer to make a choice: whether to buy and consume a GM food or whether to avoid it."
The green lobby immediately accused the European Union of trampling on public opinion and caving in to the United States, which, along with Canada and Argentina, has demanded that the World Trade Organization step in to overturn the EU moratorium.
European biotech firms said the greens were engaging in scare-mongering and hailed the decision as a step forward.
But EU watchers say the real battle over genetically modified food in Europe lies ahead. They say the moratorium will not really be over until the union gives the green light to plant live G-M crops. The commission, for the time being, says applications will be treated on a case-by-case basis.