The EU executive wants to let national governments decide whether or not to grow genetically-modified crops without a long drawn-out review of the bloc's current GM legislation, an initial impact assessment seen by Reuters showed.
Details of the plan, which would open the door to widespread GM cultivation in Europe, provoked a furious reaction from environmentalists already angry at the EU executive's decision to approve the commercial growing of a GM potato in March (EurActiv 03/03/10).
But the plan will be a boost to biotech companies in the EU, where blockages in the current approval system have confined commercial growing to less than 100,000 hectares across the 27-nation bloc.
It could also ease trade tensions between the EU and the United States, which launched a World Trade Organisation dispute against the EU in 2003 after countries including Austria and Germany banned the cultivation of an approved GM maize (EurActiv 22/11/06).
The EU executive is hoping to unblock the paralysis in GM crop approvals by giving those countries that want to grow them the freedom to do so, while also sanctioning the current "GM-free" stance of several member states (EurActiv 05/02/10).
Rather than revise the legislation, which would require the agreement of the European Parliament, the Commission will try to make the change "within the existing legislative framework, if possible," the paper said.
"The Commission appears intent on avoiding any democratic debate with the Parliament in order to please the biotech industry and get GM crops into Europe," said Friends of the Earth campaigner Adrian Bebb.
A spokesman for EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli, who is responsible for the bloc's GM policy, said the EU executive hasn't completely ruled out the prospect of new legislation if required.
"What the commissioner is aiming for is legal certainty on cultivation, which could mean a legal proposal to update the existing legislation," the spokesman said.
The plans, due to be tabled in June, will likely have "a positive impact on biotechnology and seed companies compared to the status quo," the assessment said.
"There may be a negative impact for non-GM farmers," it added, referring to the risk of unintentional contamination of conventional farm produce by GM crops.
"We are pleased the Commission is seeking ways to make the existing GM legislation work as it was intended," said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas of bio-industry association EuropaBio.
"The most democratic would be to let individual EU farmers have the freedom to choose whether or not to plant EU-approved GM crops, a choice denied to most of them today," he added.
The paper outlines several options for implementing the proposal within the existing legislative framework, and makes it clear that a key consideration will be the likely reaction of WTO countries, particularly the US.
"Biotechnology is an important topic of transatlantic dialogue and therefore relations with the US [...] need to be taken into consideration when developing this initiative, irrespective of the options," the assessment said.
The first and most likely option set out in the paper is that approval for GM cultivation requests would continue to be granted at EU level following a safety assessment, but countries would then decide individually whether to grow them or not.
When it comes to how member states will justify their decision whether or not to cultivate, one option is to revise non-legislative EU guidelines on the 'co-existence' of GM and non-GM crops, according to the paper.
This would allow countries to specify a five or 10 kilometre 'buffer zone' between GM and non-GM fields, which would effectively make cultivation of GM crops impossible in practice.
Another option in the paper is to allow countries to cite "socio-economic" factors as the basis for their decisions, such as protecting organic production, increasing farmers' yields, or reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides (EurActiv 09/12/08).
(EurActiv with Reuters.)