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.
EuropaBio, which represents the health and agricultural biotech industry, defended the record of the European Food Safety Authority. In a statement, EuropaBio says EFSA “operates in one of the strictest systems worldwide, uses €75 million of taxpayers’ money annually to make sure our food is safe, and its scientific opinions are almost always coherent with the findings of comparable public institutions at member-state level and across the world.
“Yet, certain member states consistently vote against the scientific recommendation when deciding on product approvals, and some uphold national bans on EU approved products even if the responsible EU and national public institutions say there is no scientific basis to do so, and even if declared illegal by the European Court of Justice. Certain Member State governments appear to pay more attention to unfounded allegations than to publicly conducted and publicly reviewed evidence.
Greenpeace, an environmental group, contends in a new report that 19 GM seeds engineered to tolerate herbicides being considered by use in the EU would lead to dramatic rises in pesticide use because they promote growth in glyphosate-resistant weeds. The Greenpeace study, produced by Washington State University, assessed the impact of the seeds on US farms.
“This study should act as a wake-up call. Given the toxic legacy of herbicide-tolerant GM crops, it would be utterly irresponsible for the European Commission to allow their cultivation in our fields,” said Marco Contiero, Greenpeace’s EU agricultural policy director, said in a statement at the release of the study.
Speaking on 27 March at an event sponsored by EuropaBio, then-Commissioner John Dallli said: “We must ensure that whilst securing the highest level of safety for health and the environment, this regulatory framework remains flexible enough not to deter innovation …”
“Proper consideration of safety and benefits is crucial to take advantage of this technology. I sincerely hope that the long-awaited second generation of GMOs, offering benefits such as drought tolerance and improved nutritional profiles, will meet the high expectations that the industry has created. If this is achieved, it will present a renewed opportunity for constructive discussions focusing on the potential benefits and not just the risks of GMOs.”
Benedikt Haerlin, who heads the Foundation on Future Farming in Berlin and coordinates Save Our Seeds, said: “We see such an overwhelming diversity of risks and disadvantages of the introduction of GMOs at this moment, that any risk-benefit analysis at least to this time leans to saying let’s forget it, let’s not use it, let’s put our money where it has an immediate impact, let’s promote agro-ecological solutions … and let’s ban the patenting of living organisms and their components.”
- 13 Nov.: European Parliament hearing on Tonio Borg, Malta's nominee for the Commission