By Tamora Vidaillet
PARIS (Reuters) - France's parliament began a long-awaited debate on Tuesday on a proposed new law governing genetically modified crops that is contested fiercely by green groups and ecologists.
Parliamentarians from the National Assembly will thrash out proposals approved by the Senate in early February before casting votes towards the end of the week.
Second readings within both the upper and lower house are likely before the government passes the law later in the year.
Environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo said the law's aim was not to decide on whether GMOs could be used or not -- a decision which ultimately lies with the European Union -- but how related issues should be governed.
"We must be lucid and conscious to escape 10 years of side-stepping and confusion, 10 years during which the actual situation of agricultural biotechnology was a situation not governed by law," he said.
Europe demands that member states formulate domestic laws on GMO use as early as 2001, but France has dragged its feet amid deep divisions over the issue.
Borloo described the pending law as an act of "courage and faith" as it would lay the parameters for the safe use of biotechnology going forward.
The proposed text suggested real progress for potentially securing greater use of GMOs, French Farm Minister Michel Barnier said.
The FNSEA, France's main farm union which backs the freedom to use GMOs, welcomed the debate as a crucial step.
The FNSEA has repeatedly expressed hopes that the new law would end frequent ransacking of fields containing GMO seeds by activists in the past.
Ardent critics of GMOs, including some Green party deputies and groups such as Greenpeace, have vowed to oppose the law's proposed content, arguing it seeks to legalize use of technology seen as risky for the environment.
"We are going to fight with determination, like dogs, against the proposed law," green party member, Noel Mamere, told reporters ahead of the debate.
The proposed text allows for a rate of contamination of up to 0.9 percent, a level fiercely contested by ecologists seeking to protect France's biodiversity from GMO contamination.
While GMO crops are common in the United States, France -- Europe's biggest grain producer -- along with other European nations remain highly suspicious of them.
Opponents, which polls say include a majority of French people, fear they could harm humans and wildlife by triggering an uncontrolled spread of modified genes.
France has cited uncertainties over the safe use of GMOs to implement its temporary ban on commercial use of the MON 810 maize seed, the only GMO which had hitherto been used by farmers in the country. U.S. biotech giant Monsanto created the MON 810 technology.
It will now be up to the European Commission, which has allowed the commercial use of the MON 810 within its member states but which is slated to reconsider its license this year, to decide on the validity of France's move.
Despite the ban, government officials including Barnier have stressed that France has no intention to turn its back on GMOs, rather to examine the safe use of each variety on a case by case basis. France has also supported continued research on GMOs.
One of the outcomes of France's pending GMO law is the expected creation of a special "High Authority of Biotechnologies," which could be made of ordinary citizens and scientists who will provide their opinions on the use of GMOs.
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Editing by Sybille de la Hamaide and James Jukwey)