Switzerland’s Syngenta - the world’s largest agrichemical firm – has won approval for sales of its genetically modified corn across the European Union.
The European Commission agreed on Wednesday to lift a blanket ban on new types of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The decision paves the way for Syngenta to begin marketing a form of tinned maize, known as Bt-11 sweetcorn, which has been modified to resist pests.
It could also be the first of many new GMOs to hit the supermarket shelves in Europe. There are dozens of applications for modified organisms awaiting approval.
Environmental groups had opposed the approval of Bt-11 sweetcorn, which is destined for human consumption only. It will not be planted – something green groups say could have led to environmental contamination.
The EU's Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, David Byrne, said that GM sweetcorn had been "subjected to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world".
"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."
The EU ruling ends more than five years of uncertainty about the use of Bt-11 corn during which the EU has imposed an array of food safety and environmental legislation to ease public fears.
“It’s part of a bigger picture,” Markus Payer, a spokesman for Syngenta, told swissinfo.
“At least there is progress at a regulatory and political level. The main and crucial question is how the market – i.e. the consumers – will act and react. And that is a longer process,” he added.
According to surveys, many Europeans, including the Swiss, remain deeply sceptical about the impact of such crops. Some fear their widespread use in agriculture could cause changes to the environment and pose a threat to human health.
As a result, European governments have supported a de facto moratorium on the introduction of GMOs.
European farm ministers earlier this year failed to reach agreement on what to do about Bt-11.
The issue was handed over to the executive commission, which has the power to authorise the use of GMOs across the EU’s 25 member states.
No bumper crop
Experts say the Bt-11 decision is more symbolic than material – largely because the modified sweetcorn will be clearly labelled as a GMO when it appears on supermarket shelves.
“You’ll certainly recognise it,” said Payer, who argues that the move will have little financial impact on Syngenta’s global sales.
“We generate only three per cent of our sales from GMOs around the world, to say nothing of Bt-11 sweetcorn. So as a whole this business is pretty small for us.
Nonetheless, for Syngenta, which is based in Basel, approval opens the door to a new market, and increases the pressure on its competitors, including America’s Monsanto.
Monsanto has said it expects to boost its short-term growth thanks to increased sales of its genetically modified corn. The company’s dependence on its biotech corn products has grown since it announced last week that it was shelving plans to introduce the world’s first GM wheat.
Both companies are currently embroiled in a row over the use of agricultural technology involved in the production of genetically modified corn in North America.
Monsanto has accused Syngenta of patent infringement, and is seeking to block the Swiss firm’s use of a technique to grow glyphosate-tolerant plants – which are resistant to a popular brand of pesticide.
The technology allows farmers to spray cornfields against weeds without damaging their crops.
The skirmish is the latest in the increasingly competitive global market for GMOs.
Syngenta was formed in 2000 through the merger of the agrochemicals units of Novartis and Astrazeneca.
The firm is now one of the world’s leading suppliers of seeds and pest-control technology.
swissinfo, Jacob Greber in Zurich
The decision by the European Commission means Syngenta's Bt-11 corn can be sold for human consumption.
But the planting or importing of GMO crops remains banned in Europe.
GMOs currently represent three per cent of Syngenta's worldwide sales.
The modified sweetcorn will be clearly labelled as a GMO when it appears on supermarket shelves.
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