Think Europe's halting GMOs? It could be heading for more

A Romanian farmer shows genetically modified soybeans in the village of Varasti, 130km southeast of Bucharest, in this May 21, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Barbara Lewis PARIS (Reuters) - The large number of European countries opposing GMO cultivation may have given the impression the bloc is putting a brake on GMOs but with new crops queuing for approval and key countries leaving the door open, output is more likely to grow than wane. Nineteen out of 28 EU member states have requested opt-outs for all or part of their territory from cultivation of Monsanto's MON810, the sole GMO crop already approved for cultivation, or for pending applications. They were using a law signed in March giving countries opposed to the technology the right to seek exclusion from any approval request for GMO crop cultivation even if strains have been approved at EU level. Although widely grown in the Americas and Asia, public opposition is strong in Europe against GMO crops, which have had their DNA altered, often by introducing genes from a different species to boost their resistance to pests or herbicides. France, among the most vocal opponents to the technology and the bloc's largest grain grower, has banned Monsanto's MON810 maize strain since 2008, citing "serious doubts" it was safe for the environment. It was among the first countries to use the opt-out scheme to ensure its ban remained in place, followed by other large maize growers such as Italy, Hungary and Germany. Monsanto, which says its maize is harmless to humans and wildlife, asked that its 10-year clearance be renewed and seven new maize strains developed by DuPont Pioneer, Dow Chemical and Syngenta are in the approval process. GMOS WELCOME IN ROMANIA Although it remains unclear how long it could take for new GM seeds to be available in countries that did not block them, farmers and feed producers have little doubt output will grow. "Romanian grain farmers will gladly embrace the genetically modified maize crops," said Laurentiu Baciu, president of the LAPAR league of Romanian farmers, which unites about 60 percent of the Black Sea country's acreage. "It's common sense that any maize farmer, be it in Spain or in Portugal or in Romania, would like to reduce production costs and eventually reap a bigger harvest," he said, estimating that GM maize strains under approval would boost yields by at least 15-20 percent. Portugal and Spain have cultivated MON810 for years with 131,500 hectares in Spain last year, farm ministry data shows. In Romania, the second-largest maize producer after France, the area sown with GMOs has decreased in recent years but Baciu expects output to pick up. Environment campaigners have decried the EU approval system for new GM crops and called for it to be reformed. Despite public hostility to genetically modified foods, Europe is one of the world's major buyers of biotech grain. There are nearly 60 GM crops approved for use in the EU, mainly for animal feed. "These new strains will certainly find an outlet in sectors that don't ban GMOs, especially in animal feed," Stephane Radet, director of French animal feed maker group SNIA, noting that when grown legally GMOs could travel freely within Europe. (Writing by Sybille de La Hamaide; Additional reporting by Radu Marinas in Bucharest and Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid; Editing by Dale Hudson)