National governments will have more freedom to choose whether to grow or to ban genetically modified (GM) crops under proposals unveiled by the European Commission this week (13 July).
The plans mean that countries supportive of GM-technology, such as Spain and Romania, could eventually grow different types of GM crops, while countries opposed to GM, such as Austria and France, could stay GM-free.
The Commission hopes to end years of deadlock that have prevented the EU from authorising GM crops for cultivation. Since 1998, only two crops – a type of maize and of potato – have been approved for cultivation on EU soil.
John Dalli, the European commissioner for health and consumer policy, said that the proposals combined “more freedom for member states” with “a strict science-based approach”. But he insisted that there would be no speeding up of the authorisation process.
One immediate change is that governments will be allowed to take tougher measures to prevent GM crops from getting mixed up with conventional crops, for example, by creating GM-free zones or regions, to stop GM seeds straying into conventional or organic farms.
Revision of the rules
Beyond this measure, the Commission envisages a bigger shake-up of the EU system for authorising GM crops. Such a revision of the current rules would have to be approved by national governments and the European Parliament.
The proposed revision would allow governments to ban GM cultivation citing ethical concerns, but not for health and environmental reasons. Dalli explained that ethical concerns could be “many and varied”, such as “a massive aversion” among the population to growing a particular GM crop.
WHAT DALLI PROPOSED
Communication explaining the Commission’s approach to genetically modified organisms;
Recommendation on ‘co-existence’, allowing member states to take immediate action to avoid unintended presence of GM crops in conventional farms;
Proposal to re-draft 2001 directive on EU rules for approving GM crops for cultivation.
“What Europe needs at the international level is more cohesion, not less. This proposal adds only a dose of chaos.”
José Bove, the one-time anti-globalisation protester, now a French Green MEP, says Europe needs one policy on GM.
“What next? Do we give up on trying to agree a community patent or allow member states to set their own fishing quotas? This is a sad day for European integration.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group in the Parliament, fears a dangerous precedent has been set.
“This is a rare example of the Commission handing the decision-making process back to the member states. This is as it should be.”
Julie Girling, a British Conservative MEP, says only national governments should decide whether to permit or ban GM crops.
Countries on both sides of the GM debate have criticised the “re-nationalisation” of GM policy. Bruno Le Maire, France’s agriculture minister, said that decisions should continue to be taken at European level. Elena Espinosa, Spain’s environment minister, was quoted as saying: “If the agricultural policy is common, why wouldn’t the policy of cultivation of GMOs be?”
Dalli denied claims that his policy amounted to nationalisation. GMs have been “an exceptional issue” and did not set a precedent, he said.
Six member states – Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg – have GM bans in place, by virtue of “safeguard” clauses in existing rules.
Neither the biotech firms nor anti-GM campaigners are happy with the proposals. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, two of the most vociferous anti-GM campaigners, called on national governments to reject the proposals. Their lawyers fear that bans introduced on ethical grounds could prove flimsy in court, leaving countries vulnerable to legal challenges from biotechnology companies.
“The Commission continues to fail to protect Europe’s food and feed from contamination by GM crops,” said Friends of the Earth’s Mute Schimpf.
The biotechnology industry worries that the plans will leave farmers mired in uncertainty. Carel du Marchie Sarvaas at EuropaBio, the pan-European biotechnology industry group, said: “These proposals appear to give carte blanche to ban safe and approved GM crops in any country or region regardless of the needs or wishes of their farmers.”
The proposal is on the agenda of a bilateral meeting between the EU and the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to discuss biotech issues. A USTR spokesperson said it would be premature to comment on the substance of the proposal.