[F] France struggles with its attitude towards biotechnology

Following three days of intense debate, the French Sénat adopted a revised draft of a new biotechnology law on Friday guaranteeing farmers "the freedom to produce with or without genetically modified organisms". On the very same day, the Minister of Agriculture, Michel Barnier, officially notified the European Commission of France’s use of the safeguard clause and of national suspension of the cultivation of MON 810 maize. However, field trials with genetically modified plants shall continue.

The new French biotechnology law is designed to transfer the European directive on the release of genetically modified organisms (GMO) into national law. It therefore guarantees the use of GMOs "with the respect to common prescriptions", indicating that agricultural products with less than 0.9% genetically modified organisms will be regarded as GMO free. If the threshold of 0.9% is exceeded, for example by cross pollination, a neighbouring farmer or bee keeper will be entitled to compensation for his or her loss of income. Minimum distances that ensure the coexistence of genetically engineered and conventional or organic cultures will be defined by decree of the Minister of Agriculture. Such distances will be reviewed every other year. The Sénat also has introduced a new clause into the draft law that makes the destruction of GMO cultures a punishable offence. Two to three years of imprisonment and a penalty of 75,000 to 150,000 euros may be imposed upon so-called "field liberators".

As a consequence of its disputed recommendation to suspend the authorisation of MON 810, the "High Authority" on biotechnology will be restructured towards more scientific expertise. Chaired in its previous form by a politician, the renamed "High Council" will be chaired by a scientist. Furthermore, the scientific committee of the council will reach decisions ("avis") while its societal committee will express recommendations ("recommendations"). The National Assembly is expected to vote on the draft biotechnology law in the first week of April.

Notification of the safeguard clause with respect to MON 810 may interrupt the cultivation of Bt-maize in France in the coming season. Published in the Official Journal on 9th of February, the decision by Minister Barnier interdicts the cultivation of MON 810 until European bodies have clarified serious doubts on the safety of this maize line that were expressed in January by the French High Authority. It is doubtable if such clarity will have been achieved in time for sowing, which usually takes place in April or by mid May. For this reason, the French maize growers association (AGPM) already have announced the intention to take legal action against the national ban. Last year, 21,000 hectares of MON 810 were grown in France and AGPM spokesperson Luc Esprit has expressed hope that a judgement will be rendered in time to ensure its further use. Otherwise, Esprit predicts a loss of 10 Mio. Euro for growers of Bt-maize.


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