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TITLE:  Biotech firms scrap GM maize trials in Austria
SOURCE: Reuters
DATE:   April 13, 1999

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Biotech firms scrap GM maize trials in Austria

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Four top biotechnology firms said Monday they had scrapped plans to carry out the first field trials of a genetically modified crop in Austria, blaming negative public opinion and lack of support from the government.

Forum Biotechnology, a Vienna-based group representing four biotechnology companies and four food companies, shelved plans to begin trials of a modified maize developed by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which has been cleared for use by the European Union.

"The public attitude to biotechnology is very bad here and, with elections coming up this year, the government wouldn't actively support our proposal for test plantings," said Forum spokeswoman Angelike Svoboda.

The decision comes amid growing public distrust across Europe about the safety of gene modified foods. A number of European countries have slapped unilateral bans on certain new crop strains.

This has increased the danger of trade problems with the United States, where genetically modified crops are already in widespread use. The U.S. exports millions of tons of maize and soya to Europe every year, but has been unable to export any maize this year because it cannot guarantee that its shipments are free of varieties not yet cleared for use in Europe.

Forum Biotechnology was set up last year by Novartis, Monsanto, Pioneer and Agrevo -- a joint venture between Hoechst and Schering -- and four food companies to try to persuade skeptical Austrians of the benefits of GM-foods.

Svoboda said it had sought the blessing of a number of ministries to carry out trials of the maize, but had abandoned its plans when that support was not forthcoming.

"This is extremely bad news for the biotechnology industry in Austria," she said. "It could lead some companies to pull out of Austria completely."

Novartis has already dropped plans to invest 100 million Austrian Schillings ($7.89 million) in the country, she said.

Two years ago, more than 20 percent of the Austrian population signed a petition against genetically modified foods.

A spokeswoman for Consumer Affairs Minister Barbara Prammer denied the government was opposed to biotechnology.

"We don't object to gene crops," she said. "But we do check every single one on a case-by-case basis to the very strictest standards." 



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