Dalli’s GM dilemma: Sound science or political nightmare?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU has rightly identified innovation and science as major drivers for economic growth, but the European Commission should not attempt a ''politically bruising'' legislative review of genetically-modified (GM) approvals as it would only disadvantage farmers and hurt EU competitiveness, writes Martin Livermore, founder of public affairs consultancy Ascham Associates and director of the Scientific Alliance.

This contribution was authored by Martin Livermore.

''Last year, in a bid to break the long-running deadlock on GM approvals in the EU, [European Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso made a commitment to continue with the current system, but to allow individual member states to decide whether they would permit farmers to cultivate them on their own soil.

This proposal is surely a good idea. Rather than the present contrived, unscientific excuses, governments could simply decide what they want to do, without disrupting farming in other countries. The EU approvals system would finally be free to make rational, science-based decisions. But 'nationalisation' is not ideal; for example, surely it is absurd that an agricultural power-house like France does not allow its farmers access to the most productive agricultural science, particularly given the enthusiasm with which they planted GM maize in the past. But if the quid pro quo is science-based decision-making, perhaps it is worth it.

Barroso charged DG SANCO under Commissioner John Dalli with moving nationalisation forward. The commissioner has already approved a GM potato variety for cultivation, making it clear that he would make transparent decisions firmly based on good science. He now has to decide how to make the nationalisation approach work, whether by working within the existing regulations or embarking on the complex political path of revising the legislation.

One thing is certain should Dalli follow the second course: he would open a Pandora's Box and his term of office would be defined by this one issue. He would be very publicly sucked into the highly polarised debate that the issue generates. He would be committed to years of political wrangling and horse-trading and be personally blamed by governments, self-publicising parliamentarians, anti-GM activists, the crop biotechnology industry and international trading partners for his failure to achieve the particular result they want.

Instead of being remembered for his contribution to consumer protection and responsible innovation, Commissioner Dalli would be known as 'Commissioner GM'. The anti-GM billboards currently placed around Brussels poking fun at Dalli and Barroso are just a small taste of the grief he would get if he tried to pass new GM legislation.

Perhaps all this might be tolerable if it achieved a worthwhile goal. But the reality is that a politically bruising legislative review would disadvantage farmers and hurt EU competitiveness. The trade implications of yet more delays in the approval system are also serious. Already we have seen real problems of supply of animal feed as traces of non-approved GM events were detected in shipments from the Americas. As more events are approved across the Atlantic, the chances of further disruption increase dramatically. At a time when the major economies need to boost economic growth, who really wants to reignite a transatlantic trade war and risk further WTO involvement?

This whole debate boils down to three questions: 1) Would new legislation be any better? 2) Who would benefit and who would lose from changing the legislation? and 3) Can the nationalisation of cultivation decisions be achieved under the existing legislation?

The first answer is a clear 'no'; WTO rules and the EU legislative framework severely limit the possibilities of fundamental change. In any case, the current problems are caused not by the regulations as such, but by politicisation of the final decision-making. Regulatory changes would not alter this.

As for the question of who benefits from a further review, the answer is 'almost no-one'. Member states are in tacit agreement that national decision-making is desirable; those in favour to speed up adoption by their farmers and those opposed to continue to appease their political audiences. They want this now, without another protracted delay. The major political groups in the [European] Parliament also have little appetite for reopening this particular can of worms, with the exception of the Greens. And, given the numerous other issues which deserve their attention, the Commission certainly has no enthusiasm for this route.

The third question is whether national decision-making can be achieved under current legislation, and the  answer to this is 'yes'. All it requires is some intelligent guidance of the existing legislation, and some political will. Given the attitudes of all major players, this should not be an obstacle.

Europe needs to seriously boost its economic growth and the Commission has rightly identified innovation and science as major drivers for this. It would be politically irresponsible to waste valuable time and resources on an emotive issue like GMOs, especially as there is no benefit in doing so.

Barroso's innovation and science agenda would be seriously damaged. Europe would not only say goodbye to any chance of becoming a world leader in biotechnology, but also would give a clear message to science-based industries: 'Ignore our fine words about supporting science and innovation; when it comes to the crunch we won't be there to help'.''

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