MEPs approve national ban on GM crops cultivation

Hostility towards GMOs is widespread throughout Europe. Warsaw, 2014. [Paul Sableman]

MEPs have rubber-stamped controversial rules permitting EU member states to decide themselves whether to allow the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops, which are currently grown in only five EU countries.

Praised by some experts as liberating, but attacked by others as undermining the single market, the proposal has managed to break a 15-year deadlock in growing GM crops. Widely grown in the Americas and Asia, GM crops in Europe have divided opinion.

There was no other credible alternative to the agreement, said Belgian MEP Frédérique Ries, responsible for the dossier, speaking ahead of the vote. “We have a legal jungle and a recalcitrant council,” she added. Adopted by a very large majority (480 votes in favour), the agreement will give more freedom, more flexibility to Member States as well as greater legal certainty, she insisted.

After months of negotiations, the European Commission, the Parliament and member states have agreed on a scheme for authorisation which will allow member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of specific GMOs in their territory based on environmental, agricultural, socio-economic policy objectives, even if Brussels gives the green light for their cultivation.

Currently only a Monsanto GM maize, authorised in 1998, is grown, mainly in Spain and Portugal, but also in the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. Other pro-GM governments, the UK and the Netherlands, would like to see many more varieties approved and growing in their soils. But they have been frustrated by opponents, such as France, Germany, Luxembourg and Austria, which have blocked the qualified majority required in Brussels to give the go-ahead. These countries together with Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Italy have adopted safeguard measures prohibiting the cultivation on their territories.

Today’s decision means that the 7 GMOs already approved but not cultivated in Europe could find their way into European fields as soon as early as next year.  Others might find their way in the near future.

Win-win deal for Commission and member states

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who was present during the debate ahead of the vote, welcomed the agreement, adding it allows freedom of choice.

“The agreement states that it will give member states the possibility to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs on their territory without affecting the EU risk assessment,” he said.

The text agreed is in line with President Juncker’s commitment, as reflected in his Political Guidelines, to give democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice when it comes to important decisions concerning food and environment.

“It was a very tough negotiation, but we managed to guarantee consumer protection and safety for farmers. Member states have to implement measures to avoid the contamination of traditional crops by GMOs from neighbouring member states. The Commission committed itself to evaluate national measures regarding financial compensation for farmers in case of accidental contamination,” said Gilles Pargneaux, S&D MEP in charge of the dossier.

Under the new rules, the Commission will review and reinforce the rules on the risk assessment undertaken by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) within two years, so that authorisations will be granted on the basis of independent and sound scientific evaluations.

Granting that the compromise is not perfect, MEPs say that necessary precautions will be taken when it comes to risk, even though Parliament’s request to establish a liability regime in case of damage was not retained.

“Member states and consumers can now feel safer about GMOs. However, we regret that there will be no fund to compensate farmers whose crops have been contaminated,” noted Matthias Groote, S&D spokesperson on the Environment, Food Safety and Public Health.

Greens’ obstructionism

Environmentalists and Green MEPs, who voted against the proposal, say that the legislative ‘renationalisation’ is a false solution, adding that the EU has de facto abandoned its responsibility to protect Europeans’ public health, as well as quality agriculture and the environment.

“This new law is supposed to give countries some legal muscle to prevent GM crops from being grown on their territory. But it has some major flaws. It grants biotech companies the power to negotiate with elected governments and excludes the strongest legal argument to ban GM crops-evidence of environmental harm, Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director said. 

José Bové, a French Green MEP, said “in the short term, this change will allow multinationals like Monsanto to challenge national bans at the WTO or, if free trade deals like TTIP are finalised, in arbitration tribunals”.

The last Eurobarometer on GMOs from December 2010 showed that only 21% of Europeans agree with the statement that GMO food is safer for future generation (against 58% who disagree).

In the coming months, the Commission will review the authorisation process of GMOs. This should include both rules for import into the European Union as well as for cultivation on European territory.  The controversial debate is not over.

Green food safety spokesperson Bart Staes said: “This new scheme will ease the way for GMOs in Europe, whilst failing to respond to the need to address the flawed EU procedure for authorising GMOs. Despite a majority of EU member states and citizens being consistently opposed to GMOs, the real purpose of this new scheme is to make it easier to wave through EU authorisations of GM crops. Countries opposed to GMOs are given the carrot of being able to opt-out of these authorisations but the scheme approved today fails to give them a legally-watertight basis for doing so. This is a false solution.

"There is definitely a need to reform the EU's GMO authorisation process: we cannot persist with the current situation by which authorisations proceed in spite of flawed risk assessments and the consistent opposition of a majority of EU member states in Council and, importantly, a clear majority of EU citizens. However, the answer of this cannot be a trade-off of easier EU authorisations against easier national bans. This deal risks finally opening the door for genetically modified organisms to be grown across Europe. We now look to Jean-Claude Juncker to deliver on his promise to ensure the EU authorisation process is also reformed to reflect the consistent democratic opposition to GMOs in Europe."

Commenting after the vote, rapporteur for the report, MEP Frédérique Ries, said: "The current situation, with states or regions forced to go before the courts if they want to limit or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs, is not acceptable." 

The SNP team in the European Parliament Alyn Smith MEP and Ian Hudghton MEP, have slammed the passage of new EU legislation on the cultivation of GM crops as a "Trojan horse riddled with loopholes" which potentially opens the door to much greater use of GM crops and circulation of GM products in Europe.

"The reality is that anyone who voted against this agreement today, voted for the status quo, which is simply not credible."

Czech MEP Kate?ina Kone?ná (GUE/NGL,) said: "GMOs pose a risk, not only to the environment and biodiversity, but mainly to human and animal health. Most impact studies concerning GMOs were mainly financed by multinational corporations and lobbying groups. The harmful impact of GMOs on human health is not publicly discussed even though we know about it from independent studies."

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.

In the EU only one GM crop is approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, MON 810.

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

The proposal, which was backed by the EU’s 28 environment ministers in June 2014, gives back “full responsibility” to member states over the cultivation of GMOs on their territory.

For the first time, it formally allows EU countries to opt-out from the Europe-wide approval system.

>> Read our LinksDossier: GMO cultivation in Europe: A decade of legal battles

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