GM crops could be speedily brought to the UK market after MEPs voted to allow countries to choose whether to grow the crops on Tuesday. The new EU law, which comes into force this spring, will allow states to cultivate GM crops that have already been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa).
According to Sarah Cundy, the UK’s head of GM policy and regulation, that could happen quickly.
“We now expect to see GM maize 1507 get its final authorisation in the near future, and new applications should be approved much more quickly than has been the case until now,” she said in an email to the National Farmers Union, which the Guardian has seen.
The Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder welcomed the new rules, which passed with a 480-159 majority on Tuesday, as a decentralisation of power.
“We are keeping strict safeguards in place but the decision on whether or not to grow approved genetically modified crops is being returned to national governments,” she said. “This will give us a stronger legal framework in which countries, farmers and scientists can work.”
Last year, EU ministers voted to allow cultivation of DuPont Pioneer’s ‘Supercorn’, also known as GM Maize 1507, after Efsa approved it despite concerns about the effects it might have on beneficial insects such as butterflies and moths. Efsa recommended addressing these with risk mitigation measures such as crop rotation and field buffer zones.
Another email from the UK environment minister Lord de Mauley to the Beyond GM campaigning group promises “pragmatic rules” for separating GM and non-GM crops to allow product labelling, and does not foresee commercial planting of crops “for at least a few years”.
Ecologists see this as a tacit nod for GM cultivation in the 2017 planting season if the Conservatives win the next election, although the Labour party also views biotechnology as a way to strengthen the UK’s food chain and reduce environmental damage, if it has public support.
But Marco Contiero, Greenpeace’s agriculture policy director said it would be “irresponsible” for Supercorn to be given a green light across Europe before national opt-out legislation had also entered into force. “The GM crop would encourage use of a herbicide so toxic that it will be banned in Europe by 2017,” he told the Guardian.
A spokeswoman for the UK’s Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs played down the chances of new GM applications coming to market soon, as eight of those in the pipeline were for maize strains that are resistant to pests not found in the UK.
The chair of Efsa’s GMO panel, Professor Joe Perry said that its 20 academic experts would provide a stringent regulatory buffer against any threat to the environment or human health.
“Half a billion European consumers can be assured that when an opinion declares food from a GM crop plant to be safe, it can be consumed with confidence,” he said. “The current delay in approvals to import and cultivate GM crops within the EU is due to political disagreements, not due to disagreements over the quality of the risk assessments.”
But Green MEPs were sceptical about what the revised rules would mean in practice. “It’s a good thing that EU countries will have new powers to ban GMOs. However, what this means in reality for the UK is more GMOs not less,” said Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for south-east England. “This is because our pro-GM government will now be able to give the go-ahead to more authorisations.”
Friends of the Earth’s food campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, said: “This decision is good news for nations like Scotland and Wales, whose political leaders have opposed GM crops and can now ban them from their fields. But this ruling is a double-edged sword that could open the door to GM crops being grown in England.”
The new law does allow governments to opt out of GM cultivation either by negotiating with the firms for a territorial exclusion, which the companies may refuse, or by imposing national bans on single crops – which the companies can challenge.
In practice, environmentalists fear that countries wishing to ban GM will face protracted national court cases that graduate to the European court of justice and afford corporate protagonists equal or greater rights to national governments.
“General environmental policy objectives can be used to justify a ban under the amended directive, but they must be distinct from the environmental impacts that Efsa has already looked at,” Contiero said. “This means that EU states may face a de facto prohibition on citing environmental impact assessments they have themselves conducted in their own territories.”
Several European countries led by France and Hungary have GM bans in place, but others such as Britain and Spain have vocally supported the technology, with the UK abstaining from the final vote because of its provisions for GM embargoes.
“We are concerned that these national bans may deter new applications from coming forward,” Cundy said in her email. “We feel that the deal’s mandatory co-existence measures on borders between those member states who are cultivating GM crops and those that are not are too restrictive.”
The UK, however, has not cultivated GM maize.