GMO ban: Risks for science-based assessments

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

French President François Hollande will face judicial problems over the ban on the cultivation of genetically modified plants, and this has widespread implications for science-based risk assessment in the EU, argue Marcel Kuntz, John Davison and Agnès E. Ricroch.

Marcel Kuntz is director of research at CNRS in Grenoble, France, John Davison is retired director of research at INRA, and Agnès E. Ricroch is lecturer at AgroParisTech in Paris.

"French President François Hollande has announced that the ban on the cultivation of “genetically-modified” plants, initiated by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, will remain in place. Thus, the new government will face the same judicial problem as the former one and this has widespread implications for science-based risk assessment in the EU.

In February 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government sent a document called ‘emergency measures’ (EM) to the European Commission (EC), allegedly providing new information on environmental risks of maize varieties carrying the MON810 insect-resistance trait.  

It was followed by the publication in March 2012 of a national ruling banning its cultivation. Already in February 2008, this government suspended the cultivation of these MON810 varieties on the basis of their potential negative environmental impacts but its allegations have been consistently rejected by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Actually the French position was a green-washing political move. The German government also suspended MON810 cultivation in April 2009 and also justified it by alleged new data on negative environmental impacts. A scientific publication 3 and the German Central Committee on Biological Safety (ZKBS) rejected these allegations.  

To understand the implication of these events it is important to keep in mind that, in Europe, “genetically modified” organisms (GMOs) are regulated by EU law and that a moratorium on GMO cultivation must have justifiable reasons with a scientific basis.

However, the bans on the commercial cultivation of EFSA-approved MON810 maize (now implemented by 8 Member States: Austria, Hungary, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Germany Bulgaria and Ireland) had actually only political or economical motives.

Consequently, the French MON810 maize cultivation ban was declared illegal in November 2011 by France’s highest judicial authority “Conseil d’Etat”, following the similar conclusions of the European Court of Justice released in September 2011.

Despite failure under European and French laws, the former French Minister of Ecology, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, immediately stated that the ban will continue and in February 2012 her Ministry produced a document called ‘emergency measures’, which was submitted to the EC.

This EM document purportedly contains new and vital information regarding environmental risks, not previously considered by the EFSA.

The reiteration of such environmental claims has profound implications. Either they are true and it means the European risk evaluation system is faulty (for not having identified them). Or there are false and this means that certain EU governments wanting to ban GMO cultivation are deliberately re-constructing false allegations when the previous ones have been rebutted.

Therefore, in February 2012 we decided to perform a point-by-point analysis of each issue raised by the French EM document. Our full-length analysis may be consulted in the reference provided. In summary, the EM document not only contains no new scientific evidence, but authentic scientific reports, including those of the EFSA GMO Panel, are distorted and falsely attributed.

Other scientific articles (at least eight since 2008), relevant to the subject and which provide a different picture, are ignored. Additional arguments (for example the possibility of appearance of resistance amongst pests targeted by MON810) are relevant to risk management and cannot be used to justify a ban (which needs to be based on an immediate and serious risk to the environment).

Most importantly, we have obtained affidavits from the original authors whose publications were deliberately misquoted in the EM document. In May 2012, EFSA also concluded that this document provided no information that had not previously been considered.

The “by-pass” of science-based risk assessment in this story is illustrated by the fact that the French Biosafety Authority (‘Haut Conseil des Biotechnologies’) was not consulted.

In a letter to the (then) Prime Minister, the HCB’s Chairman expresses the "emotion " of the members of its scientific committee and their surprise that "other expertise seems to have been mobilized " and that truncated parts of their previous scientific opinion have been used.

It should be noted that the arguments provided by the German government in 2009 had also been produced by anonymous authors, bypassing the official national agency.

Thus, the history of the GMO bans in EU supports the observation that politicians cite and/or misuse scientific publications to suit their political decisions. Although risk analysis should be divided into risk evaluation (a scientific process) and risk management, governments (e.g. France and Germany) interfere with the former to justify their political handling of the latter.

If this new French ban on MON810 cultivation is again overturned by judicial authorities, it remains to be seen whether the Hollande government will also produce its own “parallel science” to prolong the ban.

It can be noted that the new Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, on 1 June, has distorted an EFSA and ANSES (French Food Safety Agency) advice in order to justify his intention of banning the insecticide Cruiser OSR (used for the coating of oilseed rape seeds) because of an alleged impact on honeybees (rejected by EFSA and ANSES).

Thus, it is a general trend that regulatory decisions concerning risk management are getting increasingly non-science-based in the EU. EFSA was created as an independent scientific body and the current process of the safety evaluation of transgenic crops in Europe, based on the precautionary principle, is probably too stringent.

Nevertheless, EFSA is under constant political pressure from some Member States, including France, and environmentalist NGOs. This has to be understood in a context where the Council of Agricultural Ministers has never been able to reach a majority decision. In such case, the decision belongs to the EC which invariably agrees with the EFSA recommendations.

This has caused antagonism towards EFSA, resulting in accusations of being biassed and in league with the biotechnology industry. Member States could be encouraged by the behaviour of the French government to produce their own interpretation of scientific publications. These would undermine not only the credibility of the EFSA expert panel but more generally scientific risk assessment, and ultimately the credibility of their own risk management strategies on other topics than GMOs.

These member states are ignoring the fact that EFSA is the only guarantee of scientific objectivity available to the EC, and the last and weakened barrier to prevent arbitrary decisions from submerging the EU each time alleged risk issues are evoked."

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