PARIS - France formally suspended on Thursday the commercial use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds in the country until early February and ordered a biotech safety study.
The future of GMOs has long been the subject of heated debate in France -- Europe's top grain producer -- and the country's reluctance to use GMO crops compares starkly with the United States, which is far more tolerant of the technology.
The French agriculture ministry said it had charged a newly set-up committee with assessing the environmental and health implications of using GMO seeds reliant on the MON 810 technology developed by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto.
"As a result, there is a need to suspend the end-use of MON 810 maize seeds and related sales while awaiting the results of this mission," it said in a circular.
Thursday's formal suspension until February 9 at the latest, when parliament is slated to vote on a new biotech law, only concerns MON 810 maize, as it is the sole GMO technology permitted for cultivation in France and the European Union.
Stressing that the suspension was temporary, Monsanto slammed France's action.
"While remembering its desire to respect French law, Monsanto thinks that such a decision is a scandal bereft of scientific foundation and incoherent with the environmental benefits of this technology," the company said.
Seed makers also decried the move in a statement, echoing Monsanto's complaint that there was no scientific justification.
NO IMMEDIATE IMPACT
France's move came as Germany announced it had lifted a temporary sales ban on MON 810 technology after Monsanto agreed to additional monitoring of its cultivation in Germany.
France's suspension will have no immediate impact on farmers using the pest resistant GMO seeds given that the country's maize harvest is in its final stages and new sowings will not take place until April, 2008.
Pro-GMO farmers have urged Paris to speed up plans to create a higher GMO authority and pass a biotech law well before April in the hope that the dispute can be settled and MON 810 seeds can be bought well in time for the next sowings.
Those harboring fears over the potential impact of GMO crops on peoples' health and the country's bio-diversity hope a new authority will find ways to counter European Union decisions on GMO and permanently ban their use in France.
Additional reporting by Mathilde Cru; Editing by Sybille de La Hamaide and Peter Blackburn
© Reuters 2007.