Greens threaten Commission with censure over GM crop

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The European Parliament’s Greens group on Wednesday (12 February) threatened to table a motion of censure against the European Commission, because of its persistence to authorise a GM crop that was rejected by 19 member states and a parliamentary majority.

The Greens, other MEPs and environmental organisations were outraged by the Commission’s decision to move ahead and authorise the GMO maize crop Pioneer 1507, despite the opposition of 19 member states which voted against on Tuesday (11 February).

In a wave of reactions on Wednesday, Green MEPs poured scorn on the EU executive, calling its decision “a disdain for the democratic process”.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the co-president of the Greens group in Parliament, said in a statement: “if the Commission doggedly pursues the authorisation … we will launch a motion of censure in the European Parliament.”

Such a motion, which can be tabled by a minimum of 77 MEPs, could – after several steps – mount up to a resignation of the entire Barroso II commissioners team. According to the rules of procedure, at least one tenth of MEPs have to support the motion. If tabled, it is likely to make the agenda at the EP’s plenary session on 24-27 February.

A motion of censure requires approval by two-thirds of all 766 MEPs. An approval would also force the EU Commission to step down. This would be the first time in EU history: in 1999, the EU Commission led by Jacques Santer faced such a censure, but decided to resign before the motion was tabled.

Insiders in The Greens group described the threat as a “warning shot”, hoping the Commission would cave in and redraw its proposal. If not, they claim they will table the motion.

The Greens are also looking into legal action against the proposal, arguing that the EU executive changed its proposal before the Council vote, effectively sidestepping a second reading in the Parliament’s responsible committee.

Commission has 'no choice'

The row concerns the GM maize ‘Pioneer 1507’ developed jointly by DuPont and Dow Chemical, which will be approved by the European Commission following the inconclusive ministerial meeting on Tuesday (11 February).

19 member states – a record – objected to the proposal in an EU Council vote, while five voted in favour and four abstained.

  • Against: France, Italy, Hungary, Greece, Romania, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia.
  • In favour: Spain, the UK, Finland, Estonia and Sweden.
  • Abstained: Germany, Portugal, Czech Republic and Belgium.

While countries made their positions known in a public debate, they stopped short of a formal vote. Under EU rules, a failure by member states to decide paves the way for automatic approval by the Commission.

“There is no choice” confirmed Roger Waite, the European Commission’s agriculture spokesperson. “The rules are clear”, he explained, “an abstention is equivalent to a vote in favour.”

>> Read: EU divisions pave way for new GMO grain approval

GM crops are widely grown in the Americas and parts of Asia, but the European Union has only ever approved two other GM crops for commercial cultivation, a maize type and a potato, which was later blocked by a court.

However, in Europe, consumer opposition is strong and environmentalists cite scientific research that has highlighted the impact of a toxin released by 1507 on butterflies and moths.

In an opinion piece published on EURACTIV, Natalie Moll, the secretary-general of EuropaBio, biotech industry association, denounced the “politics over science” approach and regretted policymakers' distrust of GMOs, despite scientific evidence by EU agencies that they are safe.

GMO opponents argue it is up to democratically-elected representatives to decide. Bart Staes, environmental spokesperson for the Greens, said the Council’s failure to reach a majority “underlines that there is no democratic mandate for authorising this GMO maize variety”.

In the European Parliament, the Greens were outraged and threatened the European Commission with censure if it pushes ahead with the authorisation of the new GMO crop variety. 

A cultivation approval “would demonstrate a disdain for the democratic process by the European Commission," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Greens/EFA co-president.

The French agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, expressed his disappointment with the decision. “We will look into the possibility of appealing against this decision," indicated the minister’s entourage.

Eric Andrieu, a French socialist MEP, reacted by saying: "this is a black day for democracy. On January 19, 385 MEPs had called for the prohibition of this GMO. European citizens do not want it.” Yet, he said, several ministers around the Council table have chosen to ignore this and voted in favour of the approval.

"We will continue to fight for a moratorium prohibiting the cultivation of GMOs," Andrieu said, noting that "a record number of countries confirmed its opposition to the cultivation of this GM maize.”

Belgian MEP Bart Staes, the Green’s environmental spokesman said the Council’s failure to reach a majority, “underlines that there is no democratic mandate for authorising this GM maize variety.”

“Forcing through the authorisation against this background would be an affront to the democratic process and we are calling on the Commission to recognise this and withdraw its proposal,” Staes said.

“If the Commission decides not to respect the clear directions of the EU Parliament and Council, it would erode the most basic democratic principles”, said the president of Slow Food International, Carlo Petrini. “The institution responsible for the final decision cannot ignore the opinion of the other European institutions involved, or of the public. The European Commission has to free itself from the controlling power of the lobbies and biotechnological companies, the only ones who clearly care about the possibility of selling their GM seeds”.

For Greenpeace, the Commission’s upcoming decision to authorise the GM strain is a denial of democracy since a wide majority of Members of the European Parliament called on the Commission to withdraw its proposal to authorise the crop.

Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero said: “The Commission cannot ignore the scientific, political and legal concerns voiced by a large majority of countries, by two thirds of the European Parliament and supported by most EU citizens. The European Court of Justice would very likely overturn an authorisation of this GM maize in a legal challenge, as it did with the latest Commission approval of the Amflora GM potato. The Commission must learn from its mistakes and stop breaching the rules that help ensure the safety of what is grown in Europe.”

The organisation representing manufacturers in the biotechnology sector, EuropaBio, urged in a statement that, “in accordance with EU law, it is now up to the Commission to authorise the 1507 maize, based on the seven positive safety opinions provided by the EFSA.”

“All GM crops that are currently on the market in Europe have undergone a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and have been deemed safe. This was reinforced by 2 reports published by the European Commission in 2000 and 2010,” EuropaBio added.

Dow AgroSciences, a co-developer of the GM crop Pioneer 1507, reacted: “Insect-resistant 1507 maize is approved and grown widely throughout the world. It provides farmers excellent protection against the corn borer, an insect pest which can cause widespread damages to maize fields. The EU application was submitted for approval 12 years ago and has received seven positive EFSA opinions. We look forward to the next step by the Commission to finally authorize 1507 maize.”

DuPont Pioneer, the other co-manufacturer of Pioneer 1507, notes that “the European Union has a legal obligation to itself, to its farmers and scientists and to its trade partners to follow the revised EU biotech legislation and support the approval of safe agricultural biotechnology products in the European Union.”

In the EU only two GM crops are approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, and potatoes with modified starch for industrial use.

Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.

To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.

EU Council of Ministers

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