Parliament paves way for GMO crop bans

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The European Parliament yesterday (5 July) backed plans to let member states choose whether to ban the cultivation of genetically-modified (GM) crops on their territory, giving a detailed list of grounds on which such bans could be imposed.

The House voted on Tuesday (5 July) to amend European Commission proposals for an EU regulation that would allow member states to restrict or ban the cultivation on their territory of GM crops, which have been given safety approval at EU level.

The Commission's initial proposal suggested that member states could restrict or ban their cultivation on all but health or environmental grounds, which were to be assessed solely by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

But the proposals have sparked a wave of criticism, with businesses fearing they could lead to fragmentation of the internal market, bringing legal uncertainty for farmers. Some of the EU executive's proposals have also been deemed incompatible with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

The Parliament's report seeks to provide member states with "a solid legal basis" for banning GM crop cultivation, and to give them better legal protection in the event of challenges from trading partners opposed to bans.

The report – adopted with 548 votes in favour, 84 against and 31 abstentions – lists a number of reasons to allow member states to impose bans. These include:

  • Environmental grounds: Such as pesticide resistance, the invasiveness of certain crops, threats to biodiversity or a lack of data on potential negative consequences for the environment.
  • Socio-economic considerations: Such as the practicality and cost of measures to avoid an unintentional presence of GMOs in other products, fragmentation of territory, changes in agricultural practices linked to intellectual property regimes, or social policy objectives such as the conservation of diversity or distinctive agricultural practices.
  • Grounds relating to land use and agricultural practices.

Commission broadly supportive 

Health Commissioner John Dalli noted that specifying the grounds on which the cultivation could be restricted would indeed enhance the EU executive proposal. "I can therefore support this approach," he said.

Dalli also welcomed the Parliament's restriction criteria for being largely inspired by the indicative list that the Commission had already developed.

But he insisted that the environmental considerations put forward for banning GMOs should be clearly distinct from those that have already been assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

In addition, he stressed that "any grounds need to be substantiated and in line with the reality of the territory in question".

In another move, the Parliament voted to change the legal basis of the Commission proposal from Article 114 (on the approximation of national law to establish the internal market) of the EU Treaty to Article 192, which is related to the environment.

The Parliament's rapporteur, French MEP Corinne Lepage (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), said that basing the proposal on Article 192 would give member states more say on the matter.

But Commissioner Dalli said he still thought that the Article 114 was best suited to the proposal.

Improved EU safety checks

The Parliament's report maintains a common EU authorisation framework for GMOs, but the House wants the risk assessment conducted at EU level by EFSA to be improved by taking into account long-term environmental effects or effects on non-target organisms before a new GMO variety can be authorised.

The Parliament also insisted that member states must take measures to prevent contamination of conventional or organic farming by GM crops, and ensure that those responsible for such incidents can be held financially liable.

Outi Alapekkala

French Liberal MEP Corinne Lepage, the Parliament's draftswoman on GMO authorisation, said that "our proposal offers states a solid, legal basis".

"This vote is a clear signal from the Parliament to the Council and Commission: the EU authorisation system should be maintained but it should be acknowledged that some agricultural and environmental effects, as well as the socio-economic impact linked to contamination, can be cited by member states to justify a ban or restriction on GMO cultivation," Lepage said.

German MEP Jo Leinen (Socialists & Democrats), who chairs the Parliament's environment committee, said that "a law regulating cultivation of GMOs has long been needed to provide a proper legal basis for farmers, producers and retailers".

"Unlike other countries, such as the USA or Brazil, EU citizens are suspicious of GMOs. It would have been unfair to make member states accept these crops. This law goes in the right direction: it protects freedom of choice for farmers and consumers," Leinen added.

Green MEP and shadow draftsman Bart Staes (Belgium) said that "clearly an EU-wide moratorium would give the greatest certainty to the member states and clear majority of citizens that are opposed to GMO cultivation. However, this vote would give greater legal certainty to countries or regions wishing to introduce bans and, as such, is a step forward".

"Given the very real concerns of cross-contamination of conventional crops by GM crops, including cross-border contamination, we welcome the broad consensus to make anti-contamination measures mandatory. Member states that still do not have such measures in place have to adopt them. MEPs also supported a Green proposal calling on member states to establish a strict liability system to ensure the polluter pays for damages that might occur due to the cultivation or placing on the market of GMOs," Staes added.

Dutch MEP Kartika Liotard (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) said that "the European Commission would have preferred fewer opportunities for countries to ban GM crops, but Parliament was not manipulated. GMOs have adverse effects on the environment and agriculture and citizens do not need modified food".

She would have preferred to have seen a total ban on GMOs, arguing that if one member state chose to allow the cultivation of GMOs while another chose to ban them, competition amongst member states, in particular amongst their farmers, would be distorted.

EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, supports the European Commission's vision in which, "after a comprehensive EU-level safety assessment, member states should be free to choose to cultivate GM crops at their own pace". But it notes that the Parliament's debate "has highlighted the legal problems connected with banning products that have been proven safe".

"EuropaBio supports policymaking based on the scientific evidence of GM crops' safety. The very strict authorisation process at the EU level guarantees that GM crops are only allowed for cultivation if, after thorough assessment, their safety is demonstrated," the association said in a statement.

According to Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, EuropaBio's director of green biotechnology Europe, "the debate reveals very clearly how politicised science has become in European policymaking. If member states can opt-out of a product approval system simply because of political preference, without any scientific reasoning, the result will be more uncertainty and less choice for farmers".

Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said "the European Parliament is right to say that consumers, farmers and the environment should be better protected from GMOs and that all the impacts of growing GM crops must be taken into account in decision-making. This is a clear signal from MEPs that they are on the side of the majority of European citizens who oppose GM crops – it is now up to the European Commission and governments to make sure safeguards against GM crops are upheld".

In July 2010, the European Commission proposed an overhaul of the EU's policy for approving genetically-modified crops, which would give countries freedom to ban cultivation on their territory, in the hope of drawing a line under years of controversy regarding GMO approvals.

The proposal has drawn widespread criticism from both supporters and opponents of GMOs, who argued that the new system will create legal uncertainty for farmers and agri-businesses and lead to distortions in the internal market.

At present, EU member states are only able to restrict genetically modified (GM) crop cultivation under strict conditions, as authorisation licences are valid across the 27-country bloc in accordance with the principles of the EU's single market.

Only one strain of GM maize and one modified potato are currently authorised for cultivation in the EU and most Member States do not currently grow either crop commercially. Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg have activated a "safeguard clause" in the current (2001) EU Directive to expressly prohibit cultivation of certain GMOs.

  • Council is yet to agree on its first reading position on the dossier.
  • 2012: Second reading in Council and Parliament.

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