EU ministers back GMO-free zones

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Long-term environmental risk assessment of GMOs should be improved and member states allowed to establish GMO-free zones, EU ministers agreed last week.

On 4 December, the bloc’s environment ministers concluded a six-month process launched by the French EU Presidency aimed at overcoming the Council’s inability to take authorisation decisions on new GM products for cultivation in the EU. 

It is not yet clear whether the conclusions of the exercise will actually help to break the current deadlock. Nevertheless, ministers agreed to:

  • Improve evaluation of the medium  and long-term environmental impacts of GM crops, in particular of pesticide-producing and herbicide-resistant GM crops;  
  • launch a joint European Commission and member-state reflection group in 2009 to define and consider socio-economic implications of placing GMOs on the market (such as cost-benefit analysis of the possible consequences of the entry of GMO seeds into the overall agricultural system);
  • improve the use of member-state experts in the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) safety evaluation of GMOs;
  • fix Community thresholds for the presence of GMOs in conventional seeds
  • protect, on a case-by-case basis, sensitive  and protected areas by establishing GMO-free zones

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas believes it is "absolutely vital" that member states participate in GMO risk assessment and that their involvement in EFSA's work is reinforced. Dimas said the Commission wants member states to define measures to allow the establishment of GMO and GMO-free zones in order to "facilitate the co-existence of both types of crops". 

EuropaBio, the European association for bioindustries, warns against further delays to EU approvals for GM crop cultivation applications. "There has not been one new GM crop cleared for cultivation in the EU for ten long years. The current de facto moratorium on new approvals has to end so that EU farmers can choose the technology that works best for them," the association said in a statement.

"It is now the time for action and we anticipate implementation of existing legislation to allow for the approvals of biotech crops for cultivation without further and unnecessary delay," said EuropaBio's secretary-general, Willy De Greef

Greenpeace's European unit welcomed the "clear signal" member states had sent to the Commission on the "need to improve the way we assess the impact of GM crops on the environment, on our health and on the lives of millions of farmers". "It is now up to the Commission and the European Food Safety Authority to implement these recommendations," said Greenpeace EU's GMO policy director, Marco Contiero

Meanwhile, the NGO deplored that due to pressure from the United Kingdom and the Commission, which are "pushing to lower safety standards on GMO seed contamination," ministers "failed to ensure that the seeds that are bought and sold in the EU would remain free of GM contamination".

Because the EU's Council of Ministers can never reach a qualified majority to either approve or reject GMOs, the European Commission is free to authorise them on the basis of a special regulatory procedure. Several member states have repeatedly invoked an EU safeguard clause enabling them to suspend the marketing or growth on their territory of GM crops that enjoy EU-wide authorisation, but the Commission has never substantiated their applications and has always ordered the lifting of national bans.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has come under criticism in this regard (EURACTIV 05/12/05 and 10/03/06), and the Commission decided to introduce practical changes to the EFSA's GMO-approval process (EURACTIV 12/04/06). In spring 2008, the EU executive mandated the agency to update its guidelines as regards the long-term environmental risk assessment of GM plants. 

In summer 2008, the French EU Presidency created an ad-hoc working group and tabled a series of proposals to consider ways of solving the current deadlock in the Council and make product approval or rejection easier.

  • 2009: Launch of a Commission and member-state reflection group to define and consider socio-economic implications of the placing on the market of GMOs. 
  • By March 2010: EFSA to complete its revision of guidelines on environmental risk assessment of GMOs. 
  • By June 2010: The Commission to draft a report on the conclusions of the Commission-member state reflection group on the socio-economic implications of GMOs. 

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