BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's environment chief has prepared draft authorizations for two biotech maize types to be grown in the European Union, testing the political climate of 27 countries that together are historically wary of biotechnology.
If EU governments agree to the approvals, it would represent the first authorization to grow a GM crop in 10 years. While politically, that scenario still appears touch-and-go, Brussels is under a lot of pressure to move forward on GM crop approvals.
In an apparent U-turn in his attitude as one of EU executive's most GM-wary commissioners, environment chief Stavros Dimas has now written draft approvals for both the maize crops, EU and industry officials say.
But so far, the paperwork is being kept well under wraps, with Commission experts believed to be under firm instructions not to release it anywhere near the public domain.
In October 2007, Dimas wanted to block both GM applications and even drafted rejection notices to say it was too uncertain that growing the biotech crops would not hurt the environment.
After intensive internal debates on GMO policy, coupled with the pressure of a court case brought by one of the manufacturing companies and a third "green light" report by EU food safety agency EFSA -- things may finally be moving at the Commission.
The crops are Bt-11 maize, engineered by Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta, and 1507 maize -- jointly developed by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of DuPont Co and Dow AgroSciences unit Mycogen Seeds.
In Europe, consumers are well known for their skepticism, if not hostility, to GM crops, often called "Frankenstein foods."
But the biotech industry insists its products are as safe as conventional equivalents. After hefty investments and years of research, it is frustrated over what it sees as the EU's delay in approving GM products to deny it access to European markets.
Pioneer is a case in point. Last year it filed a lawsuit against the Commission for what it says are undue delays in processing its request for EU approval for growing 1507 maize, submitted seven years ago. Six countries have now approved this product for cultivation, Brazil being the latest this week.
An EU public hearing for the case was held in mid-November.
"In court, the Commission committed to submit a proposal for approval taking into account the third positive opinion from EFSA and to submit this to member states in January with a decision expected in February 2009," said Mike Hall, Pioneer's communications manager for Europe.
"We expect nothing less than immediate action on behalf of the Commission," he said. "We've met all the obligations under EU legislation and have played this game of ping-pong long enough -- the ball is now with the Commission and member states to meet their obligations to approve a safe product," he said.
The same scenario is expected for Syngenta's application, officials say -- although whether EU countries can muster the necessary majority in February to approve the applications under the bloc's weighted voting system remains to be seen.
The European Union has long been split on GMO policy and its 27 member states consistently clash over whether to approve new varieties for import -- but without ever reaching a conclusion.
Some countries, like Britain, Finland and the Netherlands, almost always vote in favor of approving new GMOs. They are offset by a group of GMO-skeptic states like Austria, Greece and Luxembourg, that vote against and force a voting stalemate.
However, approving a new GMO crop for cultivation is seen as almost impossible in the EU's current climate, diplomats say.
More pressure on the Commission has come from German chemical company BASF, which filed a similar lawsuit last year over its GM Amflora high-starch potato -- the paperwork for which has sat on Dimas' desk since July 2007.
Editing by James Jukwey