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.