Cracks start to show in EU GMO policy

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EU Commissioner Stavros Dimas has infuriated the biotech industry by admitting to the uncertainties surrounding the long-term safety of genetically modified crops at a conference in Vienna.

A conference on the “co-existence” of conventional and biologic farming with Genetically Modified crops ended with little progress in Vienna on Thursday (6 April), with all major stakeholders sticking to their positions.

But EU environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas may have broken new ground when he admitted on 5 April that GMO products “raise a whole new series of possible risks to the environment, notably potential longer-term effects that could impact on biodiversity”. “Protected sites or areas, endangered or vulnerable species of plants and animals are of paramount importance in this respect,” he said, promising that the Commission would discuss the issue at an orientation debate “next week”.

At a news conference, Dimas openly questioned the quality of scientific opinions provided by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), saying “scientific opinions rendered by EFSA have relied exclusively on information provided by companies that look at short-term effects”. “EFSA cannot give a sound scientific opinion on long-term effects of GMOs”, he said adding: “There are also questions on whether GMO companies are providing the right information to the European Commission,” accoring to Reuters.

Dimas’s statement should not necessarily be interpreted as a radical policy shift at the European Commission which has so far insisted on the high scientific quality of the safety assessments performed by EFSA.

Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel insisted that there should be no doubt about the safety of GM products already authorised by the Parma-based agency. “This is not a question of health or environmental protection, because no GMOs are allowed on the EU market unless they have been proved to be completely safe,” said Boel.

The EFSA’s GMO authorisation procedure has come under fire by some member states who point out that all GM products submitted to its approval have systematically been cleared so far (EURACTIV 6 March 2006).

Eight GMO bans are still in place in Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Greece despite EFSA’s scientific approval. The Commission repeatedly attempted to lift those bans but was unable to do so because of a loophole in the procedure. 

Organisers at the Austrian Presidency made farmers’ freedom to choose whether or not to grow GMOs the central theme of the conference. Although national rules have already been put in place to prevent the accidental release of GMOs, some farmers and scientists are still raising concerns about GM crops contaminating neighbouring fields.

Austria, an outspoken critic of GMOs among EU member countries, tries to draw a parallel with consumers “freedom of choice” which is protected under EU law with a labelling obligation for GM food.

“We must now address the second important question, namely how this freedom of choice can be secured for farmers too”, said Austria’s agriculture minister Josef Pröll. 

Pröll emphasised that cross-border “co-existence” of conventional crops with GMOs should also be secured, “given the proximity of fields in neighbouring countries”.  “We must also find cross-border coexistence solutions”, he stressed, emphasising that “national coexistence measures are not always enough”.

EuropaBio, the organisation representing the EU biotech industry reacted furiously at Dimas's comments, saying he is "irrelevant". "It must frustrate many in Europe that […] Commissioner Dimas, spoke about issues that are irrelevant to co-existence such as environmental risk assessments for approvals of new products," said Barber, director of EuropaBio.

"The Commissioner appears to be confused about the facts; he misinformed the audience by telling them that "terminator technology" is being sold and by stating that "small farmers are being put out of business by GMOs", Barber continued.

However, environmental NGOs were not particularly cheerful about the conference outcome, saying participants "failed to resolve the key issues of preventing widespread contamination from GM crops".

Geert Ritsema, Genetic Engineering Campaigner for Greenpeace International said that "given the failures of the risk assessment and the impact of contamination on farmers and consumers, no GM crops should be authorised for cultivation in Europe".

On 10 March, the Commission's Joint Research Centre published a report analysing case studies on co-existence. The technical report concluded that larger distances were needed to isolate GM fields and prevent seeds from contaminating neighbouring cultures.

Austria, the current holder of the six-month rotating EU Presidency and organiser of the conference, is one of the fiercest opponents to genetically modified crops (GMOs). Other vocal critics of GMOs among Europeans countries include Greece, Italy and Luxembourg. The pro-GMO camp is mainly represented by the UK while many others are undecided.

The Austrian Presidency, backed by other member states, wants to re-open the current safety assessments done by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which they argue, has approved GM products without sufficient research on the risks they could pose to human health and the environment. 

Austria brought the issue to the attention of environment ministers at a meeting on 9 March, with member states agreeing on greater transparency in approval procedures and on the need to provide better information to consumers (EURACTIV 13 March 2006).

  • Following the conferences and a consultative process with stakeholders, the Commission will decide if any further action needs to be taken at EU level.

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