The European Union has agreed on a new approach to the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) which allows member states to ban or restrict GMOs in their territory. The agreement should mark the end of a decade of legal problems, but in the context of ongoing EU-US free trade negotiations, vocal GMO opposition from member states and civil society is unlikely to subside.

Overview

The European Union has the strictest rules on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the world.

After a decade of legal battles, the European Union reached an agreement in June 2014, allowing its member states to restrict or ban GMO crops in their territory.

The new president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has backed the new comprehensive legal framework which will give EU member states a legal basis they have been wanting for years.

The EU regulatory system is based on tight safety standards and freedom of choice for consumers and farmers. The tools used to ensure freedom of choice are effective labelling and traceability.

There are two key rules which govern GMOs in the EU (link to overview): a directive  used for the authorisation of GMO products in EU and regulation used on food and feed made from GMO products that have been authorised.

Issues

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.

There has been strong opposition from some EU member states to introducing genetically modified crops for years. To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize, including Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.

MON 810 is the only commercially cultivated GMO in the EU.

For example, France has been embroiled in a number of legal battles and the French government used the safeguard clause to ban the cultivation of MON 810 in February 2008. The following year, April 2009, Germany followed suit. 

Spain is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares), Spain contributes more than 90%.

In his bid to become president of the EU Commission for a second consecutive term in 2009, José Manuel Barroso wrote in his political programme that “in an area like GMOs, for example, it should be possible to combine a Community authorisation system, based on science, with freedom for Member States to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory.”

Barroso has always voiced support for any plan that would maintain an EU-wide authority over GMO safety assessment and approval, while allowing countries the freedom to decide whether to cultivate GM crops.

In 2010, the Commission authorised the cultivation of a GM crop for the first time since 1998, Amflora, a genetically-modified potato developed by German chemical company BASF. Despite the stringent rules, and low risks of transgene flow, the Commission was forced to acknowledge that the possibility of Amflora mixing with potatoes in the food chain “can never be totally excluded”. It has not been cultivated in the EU since 2011.

How does it work?

Under an agreement reached in June 2014, member states have been given three means of opting-out of the EU-wide approval process.

  • Before the authorisation of a GMO, individual member states can request the applicant company to specify that the GMO cannot be cultivated on all or part of its territory. The company can accept or not to adjust the scope of its application according to the member state’s request.
  • EU countries are able, by adopting an opt-out measure, to have the final say on whether to allow an EU-authorised GMO on their territories. The decision is valid for ten years and is can be enforced even in cases where the company has refused to adjust the scope of its application.
  • Member states can reinitiate or withdraw the cultivation ban during the 10 year time-period of the GMO authorisation, should new objective circumstances appear.

The GMO approval process remains broadly unchanged however and is still outlined by the 2003 Regulation currently in force.

The producer must request authorisation to a national competent authority. The national authority then informs the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is mandated to conduct a scientific assessment and report to the Commission (lasts 6 months). The Commission then submits its decision on the matter to the Council (lasts 3 months). In the event that the Council does not reach a majority for or against authorisation, the matter is handed back to the Commission, which is free to authorise the GMO based on a special regulatory procedure.

End of the controversy?

The June agreement is unlikely to quash the controversy surrounding GMO approvals.

First, agriculture is emerging as one of the most difficult areas in the ongoing EU-US free trade talks, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The EU has ruled out importing meat from animals injected with hormones and said that it will not simply open the door to GM crops.

Although the Commission may have solved the issue of banning or restricting GM crops, TTIP negotiations mean the vocal opposition to GMOs is not likely to disappear, and on the contrary, may increase across Europe.

Positions

Jean-Claude Juncker, future president of the EU Commission in June 2014, said in his political guidelines that “it is simply not right that under the current rules, the Commission is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of Member States is against.”

José Manuel Barroso, outgoing president of the EU Commission wrote in his 2009 political programme that “in an area like GMOs, for example, it should be possible to combine a Community authorisation system, based on science, with freedom for Member States to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory.”

"I am delighted to announce that the Environment Council has just broken the deadlock on the GMO cultivation proposal and has reached a political agreement that moves towards a new legal basis giving Member States the choice to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs on their territory,” said Tonio Borg, Commissioner for Health, in response to the EU-level agreement of June 2014.

On 7 July 2013, Jorgo Riss, Director of Greenpeace's European Unit, said “the best lawyers tell us that member states are being offered no additional powers to issue bans for health, environment and contamination reasons, despite these being the most serious and legally reliable grounds. Instead, only ethical grounds are offered, which are legally intangible, subjective and easily overturned in court.”

Timeline

  • 9 Dec. 2008: decision by EU minister to improve long-term environmental risk assessment of GMOs and allow member states to establish GMO-free zones.
  • 15 April 2009: EU environment ministers backed the right for individual countries to refuse GM crop cultivation. Germany, France, Greece, Hungary and other EU countries opposed to GM crop cultivation by ordering a ban on Monsanto's MON 810 maize, despite European rulings that the biotech grain was safe.
  • 25 June 2009: After a debate on environmental risks related to the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, Austria called for an opt-out clause to be introduced to related EU legislation to allow individual member states to decide on cultivation.
  • 3 Sept. 2009: José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, Political guidelines for the next Commission.
  • 2 March 2010: Commission authorised the cultivation of a genetically modified (GM) crop for the first time since 1998, Amflora.
  • 13 July 2010: Commission proposed an overhaul of the EU's policy for approving GM crops, which will allow countries more freedom to ban cultivation on their territory while retaining an EU-wide authorisation system.
  • 13 Dec. 2014: Hungary, supported by France, Luxembourg, Austria and Poland filed an annulment of the authorization of GMO potato Amflora by the European Commission in March 2010.
  • 12 June 2014: The European Council made an important step by reaching political agreement allowing Member States to restrict or ban GMO cultivation in their territory. 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.
  • 2014-2015: European Parliament and Council to continue discussions in second reading to reach agreement on a common text
  • 2015: Final adoption expected