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[BUENOS AIRES] The Argentinean government has approved planting of genetically modified (GM) corn seeds produced by the Monsanto company. The 'Roundup Ready' corn, also known as NK603, is modified to tolerate Monsanto's herbicide, glyphosate.

According to Roberto Lavagna, minister of economy and production, "the decision is part of a strategic plan to develop use of biotechnology in agriculture over the next ten years".

The strategic plan is being developed by a group of thirty specialists from the public and private sectors and will be available by September. Lavagna also announced that Argentina is proposing to create an 'ad hoc group on biotechnology' within Mercosur, the South American common market.

Argentinean farmers have been lobbying for approval of GM corn for nearly a year. They are keen to sow GM corn seeds as soon as possible, with the hope of fuelling a crop boom similar to the one the country experienced after the introduction of GM soybeans.

In the last decade, the area of Argentina planted with soybean increased by 250 per cent to 14 million hectares — half of the country's cultivable land. Corn, in contrast, is grown on three million hectare, one-fifth of the area it covered four years ago.

Monsanto stopped selling GM soybean seeds in Argentina in January, stating that the development of a black market for seeds had made the venture unprofitable: only 18 per cent of fields using Monsanto's seeds were doing so legally. But according to Monsanto spokesman Federico Ovejero, this will not happen with their corn seeds, which are hybrids and more difficult to produce.

The GM corn seeds will be introduced to Argentinean fields gradually, and the first 10,000 hectares will be planted this August.

Argentina is the world's second biggest corn exporter, after the United States, and its biggest market is the European Community. The decision to allow GM corn has broken a long tradition of forming 'mirror policies' with Europe, where both parties announced compatible decisions on agricultural items at the same time.

The Argentinean decision came a full week before Europe's approval last week of imports of Roundup Ready corn for use in animal feeds. The European bill on human consumption of GM food will be debated at the end of September, when the ruling commission meets again.

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