A majority of EU member countries backed a compromise agreement on GMO authorisation which maintains an EU-wide approval scheme but allows national cultivation bans.
Under the proposals, drafted by Greece, which holds the rotating EU Council presidency, the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would conduct assessments of GM crops.
If a particular GM crop was deemed unsafe, no member state could approve its cultivation, explained Tonio Borg, the European commissioner for health. If deemed safe, member states would then be free to cultivate the crop or decide to ban it on grounds other than environment or health concerns, such as urban or rural planning or socio-economic impact, he added. The ministers largely disregarded an alternative proposal by the French.
Ministers failed to reach an agreement over whether to allow the cultivation of GM maize Pioneer 1507 last month, paving the way for the Commission to approve the crop by default. 12 of the 19 ministers who had voted against the crop then sent the Commission a letter asking it to withdraw the proposal.
The Greek presidency attempted to break the deadlock on GMO decisions by drafting the compromise text, which is similar to a 2010 Commission proposal giving EU countries the right to ban the crops on their territory.
Most EU environment ministers, who were meeting in Brussels yesterday (3 March), reacted favourably to the Greek proposal, including Germany. Germany's abstention from from the vote on Pioneer 1507 prevented the Council from reaching a majority in that case.
Some EU ministers expressed concerns that the move to re-nationalise GMO decisions would run up against the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Tonio Borg said EU legal advisors had scrutinised the presidency’s proposal and found it legally sound. He warned against further delays to the decision-making process.
“It appears that the majority [of member states] are in favour that we move on. I think this is the right decision,” Borg said.
Corinne Lepage, a French liberal MEP, said the day after the debate: "The Council has not taken into account any of the amendments proposed by the Parliament on the need to address the flaws of the EU authorisation system in the first place and to grant solid legal rights to ban GMOs to Member States. If this weak text is adopted, this will trigger difficult negotiations with the Parliament."
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 few varieties 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.
In the EU only two GM crops are approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, and potatoes with modified starch for industrial use.
Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.
To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.
Council of the European Union
- Press release for environment council 3 March 2014