The Juncker Commission has promised to be “more political” than its predecessor, something GMO backers see as a negative development for the approval of genetically modified crops in Europe.
“We believe this will not be positive,” said André Goig, chairman of EuropaBio, the European association of bioindustries, referring to the announcement of the new European Commission.
Goig, who is also regional Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Syngenta AG, was speaking in Brussels on Thursday (11 September), one day after Juncker presented his new team, promising a more effective and “political” decision-making process for the European Commission.
But for GMO backers, more politics is bad news in the face of national bans imposed by some member states in reaction to widespread public opposition to GM crops.
At issue is a legislative proposal by the Commission which aims to break the deadlock on GMO approvals in Europe by formally allowing EU countries to opt-out from the Europe-wide approval system.
The proposal, which was backed by the EU’s 28 environment ministers in June 2014, gives back “full responsibility” to member states over the cultivation of GMOs on their territory.
“It seems to us absurd that the EU now introduces new rules that will make it even harder to cultivate GM crops. Is there any need to change the legislation after all? Europe has already the most stringent regulatory system in the world,” Goig said.
What’s particularly puzzling to biotech firms is that politicians may still decide to ban GM crops, in spite of positive scientific assessments by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluding that they are safe for consumption.
“Our opponents know these products are safe. If it is unsafe, why allow it to be imported?,” Goig asked.
The EU’s indicative list of grounds upon which member states could prohibit GMO cultivation includes broad concepts such as religious, philosophical and ethical concerns over GM technology – and public order.
It would easily allow countries like France and Austria, which are fiercely opposed to GMOs, to ban the crops on their territory without running the risk of losing a legal challenge before the European Court of Justice.
But Goig believes philosophical considerations are insufficient to justify a ban.
“We cannot accept that member states simply ban GM crops on ethical grounds,” Goig said, calling such decisions “scientifically unfounded”.
The message by EuropaBio will not easily find traction at the European Commission and EU governments, who seem firmly embarked on a revision process of EU approval rules. Tired with years of deadlock over the approval of new varieties, the Commission gave in to pressure by national governments and offered to given them back “full responsibility” over the approvals.
“We strongly see this is a de facto re-nationalisaiton of a European policy,” said Goig who called on the Commission to try and “limit the damage” if the proposals move on.
Its key suggestion would be to force EU countries to hold a vote in the Council on each new variety once EFSA has submitted its safety assessment. “Member states opposed to the technology will continue to do so. And the burden will lie on the Commission to put the technology to a vote.”
The Commission would then likely approve the technology, based on EFSA’s scientific assessment alone – irrespective of opposition from EU national governments.
Nathalie Moll, the secretary general of EuropaBio, brushed aside suggestions that such a system could be criticised for showing insensitivity to public opinion, saying compulsory labelling rules would be enough for consumers to make a choice.
“If nobody buys the product, nobody buys the product,” Moll said. “Farmers have a business to run, they’re not going to cultivate a product that no-one wants to buy.”
The European Commission proposed allowing national cultivation bans for GMOs in July 2010, in a bid to break a deadlock in EU GM crop approvals, which has seen no new variety approved for cultivation in more than 12 years.
The proposal, however, has been subject to bitter divisions between EU member states and the proposal remains blocked. France is opposed.
In the EU only one GM crop is approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, MON 810.
Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.
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