GMO debate continues to divide EU

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European agriculture ministers were unable to reach any kind of agreement regarding five requests for approval of new strains of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), highlighting strong divisions with regard to the benefits and dangers of these controversial products.

The stalemate has angered green groups as it paves the way for default approval by the Commission, despite the opposition of large swathes of the European population to such products. 

Industry and farmers, on the other hand, warned that member states’ continual failure to approve GMOs risked causing European agriculture to fall behind its competitors. 

The applications discussed by member states concerned four strains of parasite and disease-resistant maize developed by the US group Monsanto, although one is now owned by the Swiss company Syngenta. The fifth product under consideration was a variety of starch-rich potato made by US group BASF. 

None of the products were intended for cultivation on EU farmland but for use in food and animal feed, and, in the case of the potato, for industrial starch production. 

The European Food Safety Authority has declared them safe, making it highly likely that the Commission will approve them, as it has done with a series of other GM products since 2004. 

However, public health watchdogs and environmental NGOs have voiced strong concerns, in particular relating to the BASF potato, which contains antibiotic-resistant marker genes (EURACTIV 17/07/07). They fear that parts of the potato would be used to feed livestock, ultimately entering the food chain and thus weakening people’s capacity to fight off diseases as they become more resistant to certain drugs. 

Ahead of the Council vote, Mireille Thom, a European Commission spokeswoman, reiterated that the "potato does not pose a problem to human or animal health or to the environment."

"We now look forward to a decision by the EU Commission since it has initiated the process with a favorable proposal," stated BASF President Hans Kast, after the Council vote. 

His company has, however, blasted member states' perpetual hindrance of GMO approval procedures, stressing that these types of products could make European agriculture more competitive. "Biotech crops are grown on nearly 10% of the world's arable land. Only Europe is increasingly lagging behind," said BASF board member Stefan Marcinowski. 

European farmers, represented by Copa-Cogeca, also criticised the EU decision-making procedures on genetically modified products. "It takes two to four years to approve a GM crop in Europe, 15 months in the US. We cannot compete," said spokesman Simon Michel-Berger, according to the Financial Times. 

But there is still no consensus among scientists  as to the dangers or benefits relating to GMOs either. After carrying tests, the European Food Safety Authority has declared the five products risk-free. But Patrice Courvalin of the medical research centre Institut Pasteur in Paris told the International Herald Tribune that the body is out of step with other health organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, which has notably warned that the antibiotics affected by the BASF potato's resistance genes are "critically important". 

"The biotechnology industry threatens to set an extremely worrying example if it wins approval for this potato," he warned, adding: "We should keep trying to prevent dissemination of antibiotic resistance rather than to allow products into the food chain that could potentially make a bad situation even worse." 

Green NGO Greenpeace said the BASF potato case highlighted "huge cracks in the original Commission proposal and the fundamental lack of rigour in examining the real risks associated with GM products". It insisted that authorising the BASF potato would be "an irresponsible gamble with animal and human health" and called on the Commission to "solve the inconsistencies of the GMO authorisation process which has EFSA at its heart". 

Approving genetically modified organisms (GMOs) involves a request for authorisation by a producer. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is mandated to conduct a scientific assessment and report to the Commission, which then submits its decision on the matter to the Council. 

In the event that the Council cannot reach a majority for or against authorisation, the matter is handed back to the Commission, which is then free to authorise the GMO based on a special regulatory procedure

  • The Commission is now free to approve all five GMO strains.

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