By Alexander Saeedy
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European food safety officials found there was no need to widen buffer zones around genetically modified (GM) crops even though research shows that pollen from GM maize, which can travel kilometres further than previously thought.
The buffer zones to protect vulnerable species, such as butterflies, have been part of heated debate in Europe about the safety of GM crops, which the producers say are entirely safe and environmentalists say are a serious threat to biodiversity.
Scientific research has found caterpillars of some butterfly species can be harmed by GM pollen.
The opinion dated July 1, seen by Reuters, from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which guides EU policymakers, said its previous assessment had been far too conservative.
But it said its recommendations for a Monsanto maize variety to be surrounded by a 20-metre buffer zone around GM crops to protect butterflies and for a 30-metre buffer zone for a Pioneer maize product "remains valid".
"EFSA has confirmed the appropriateness of the existing 20-metre buffer zones for Monsanto maize," a spokesperson from Monsanto said.
Pioneer Dupont said the report was further confirmation of the safety of GM products, adding it was the eighth "positive safety opinion" in 14 years.
Environmental campaigners said EFSA's finding that butterflies were more likely to be harmed by pollen that had traveled a greater distance reinforced their arguments that buffer zones around GM crops need to be extended.
"The results of the biggest research into growing maize should have raised bigger alarm bells and more precaution," Mute Schimpf, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said.
"Relying on the hope that rain or wind might weaken the impact of toxic GM pollen simply isn't credible."
The new risk assessment from EFSA was triggered by research published by Environmental Sciences Europe last year that showed pollen from GM maize could travel up to three km, one hundred times further than the 30 meters established by the EFSA in 2011.
"Once the study was published, it was clear that our previous assessment was overly conservative," EFSA spokesman James Ramsay said.
The EFSA's recommendation has been sent to the European Commission and to member states for implementation.
No-one from the Commission had immediate comment.
(Editing by Barbara Lewis, editing by David Evans)