The European Parliament on Wednesday (11 March) signed a new law on growing genetically modified (GM) crops in the European Union, clearing the way for new strains to be approved after years of deadlock.
One of the first crops to get European Commission endorsement is likely to be an insect-resistant maize known as 1507, whose developers DuPont and Dow Chemical have been waiting 14 years for the EU executive to authorise its cultivation in the bloc.
Widely-grown in the Americas and Asia, GM crops in Europe have divided opinion. Britain is in favour of them, while France is among the countries that oppose them.
An earlier attempt to reach a compromise on GM cultivation failed in 2012, when EU ministers were unable to agree.
The new compromise seeks to keep everyone happy by giving member states the right to ban GM crops even after they have been approved by the European Commission.
“All GM maize (corn) is banned for cultivation in France and we will not change this,” French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll told reporters when asked what France would do if 1507 were cleared for cultivation.
Under the old rules, member states could provisionally ban or restrict a GM crop within their territory only if they had new evidence it constituted a risk to human health or the environment, or in the case of an emergency.
So far, Monsanto’s maize MON810 is the only GM crop grown in Europe, where it has been cultivated in Spain and Portugal for a decade.
The GM industry says the new law, which gives greater scope to restrict GM farming, flouts scientific evidence that it is safe, while environment campaigners say it opens the floodgates to crops they link to a decrease in biodiversity.
Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU Commissioner for health and food safety, said the law is: “A positive step in aligning the legislation with citizens’ expectations while respecting the rights of all parties.”
After Wednesday’s signing in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the law will be published in the EU’s Official Journal on Friday and enter into force 20 days later.
EU officials speaking on condition of anonymity said they expect the Commission will sometime after that go ahead with approval of 1507 maize, which the previous health Commissioner said last year he was legally obliged to approve.
In addition, some GM crops to be imported for food or animal feed, less controversial than those to be grown in Europe, are expected to get approval and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has announced a review of the approval process.
Andriukaitis said the review would seek “a way to allow a better expression of democratically elected governments’ views on the use of genetically modified organisms”.
DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences said 1507 GM maize met all EU regulatory requirements and should be approved for cultivation without further delay.
Bart Staes, food safety spokesman for the Green party in the European Parliament, said risk assessments had been flawed and the Commission did not have “a carte blanche” to push ahead with a raft of new authorisations.
“As Commission President Juncker himself acknowledged, there is a need for a more fundamental reform of the EU’s GMO authorisation process,” he said.
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%.
The European Commission proposed allowing national bans on GMO cultivation in July 2010, in a bid to break the deadlock over GM crop approvals at EU level, which has seen few varieties approved in more than 12 years.
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The proposal gives back “full responsibility” to member states over the cultivation of GMOs on their territory.
For the first time, it formally allows EU countries to opt-out from the Europe-wide approval system.
The details of the agreement were finalised in December 2014.