Environmental groups frustrated by Commissioner John Dalli’s outward support of the genetically modified food industry are hoping his successor will take a tougher line.

The Commission has frozen requests to authorise more than 20 GM seeds for cultivation that were in the pipeline before Dalli abruptly resigned as health and consumer commissioner on 16 October amid allegations implicating him in a bribery case. Meanwhile, the biotech industry says such delays threaten Europe’s food supplies and economic competitiveness.

Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe whose organisation clashed with Dalli over GMOs, said the former commissioner “had a clear pro-GM agenda”. But she’s hopeful his replacement will be more responsive to what she called staunch public opposition to GM foods.

“I’m optimistic … I’m always optimistic,” she said. “For us it’s a responsibility and a task for a consumer commissioner to listen to the needs and the wishes of the consumers instead of following a handful of biotech companies’ interests.”

Benedikt Haerlin, who heads the Foundation on Future Farming in Berlin, said “at a minimum” there should be a moratorium on GMOs until disagreements over policies and safety can be sorted out.

The next commissioner, he said, should start by convincing France and/or Germany to drop their opposition to the Commission’s proposal to allow for national bans on the cultivation of GMOs approved within the EU.

“Politically that’s the most important thing for a commissioner because only if that happens will the scientific assessment of GMOs become a little less politically loaded,” Haerlin said.

The incoming commissioner should move swiftly to reconsider make-up of the European Food Safety Authority’s GMO review panel, Haerlin added. EFSA recently announced reforms amid allegations of cosiness with industry trade groups and research, but Haerlin said it did not go far enough.

“I think there is an obvious lack of credibility which has not been overcome with the recent re-appointment of some of the members,” he said from Berlin.

Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has temporary replaced Dalli, who has denied any impropriety and said he was wrongly forced to resign.

Malta has nominated Foreign Minister Tonio Borg as its replacement on the Commission, but he faces a grilling in the European Parliament on Tuesday (13 November) amid accusations that he helped a wealthy Kazakh couple obtain a residency permit in Malta despite serious criminal allegations against them.

Early victory for biotech industry

Dalli had early influence on GMOs in a Commission that has waffled on a common approach.

Within weeks of taking office in 2010, the Maltese commissioner approved the German-engineered Amflora potato, the first genetically modified crop since 1998 to be authorised for use in the EU. Two years later, the German chemical company BASF announced it was abandoning plans to develop the potato in Europe. The only other approved seed was Monsanto’s MON810 maize.

Dalli also gave speeches, including one in March at an event sponsored by the trade group EuropaBio, supporting agricultural biotechnology as a way to improve Europe’s economy and global competitiveness.

Still, EuropaBio, which represents the GM industry, contends that delays in approving GM crops harm Europe. “The EU system for approvals of GMOs is accumulating a huge backlog which is threatening to disrupt Europe’s supplies of agricultural commodities,” the group said in a statement last week.

“The safety record of GM crops is unmatched: there is not a single substantiated case of adverse effects for health or the environment caused by GMOs in over 15 years of widespread commercial use on the fields on 10% of the planet’s farmlands, in food, feed and textiles.”

Safety agency under fire

Regardless of who takes over from Dalli, the civil servants advising the Commission on GMOs have been generally more tolerant than public attitudes.

Anne Glover, the Commission’s chief scientific advisor, told EurActiv in a July interview that “the bottom line for me is that there is no more risk in GMO food than conventionally farmed food.”

EFSA has for years been in the firing line over its favourable assessments of GMOs.

In a report release in February, two transparency groups - the Corporate Europe Observatory and the Earth Open Source - accused the EU agency charged with reviewing the safety of biotech crops and food products has “frequent conflicts of interest” with the industries it is supposed to evaluate.

“Too often it’s not independent science that underlies EFSA decisions about our food safety, but industry data,” says the report ‘Conflicts on the menu’. “Many EFSA panel members have ties with biotech, food, or pesticide companies. EFSA’s rules allow blatant conflicts of interest to persist.”

A senior EFSA official dismissed the study as “biased and unfounded.” But a month later, EFSA, seeking to deflect criticism over the independence of its work, announced moves to clarify disclosure rules and guidelines on who can serve as scientific experts.

In October, EFSA was again on the defensive against allegations it ignored evidence of the potential health risks of genetically modified products in challenging the results of a controversial French study on a GM maize.

The study, led by French biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini, found that rats fed on a diet containing NK603 - a maize seed variety doused with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide - or given water with Roundup at levels permitted in the United States, died earlier than those on a standard diet.