Commission hesitant to approve more GM crops

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The Commission has referred a number of pending GMO approvals back to the EU’s food safety agency (EFSA) for further review of scientific evidence of the GMOs’ potential effects on the environment and human health.

The College of Commissioners held an orientation debate on GMOs on 7 May “to take stock of the current situation and to set out how to move forward on pending authorisation cases and longer-term issues”. The commissioners were originally due to clarify the EU executive’s policy on GMOs in early February, but delayed their decision. 

On the agenda was the approval of three new GM crops (two maize varieties and one potato) to which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had already given favourable opinions, but on which the Council failed to reach a consensus. Instead of rubber-stamping the EFSA opinion and authorising the varieties, the Commission decided that “in order to take decisions, it needs additional elements of scientific advice,” said its spokesman Johannes Laitenberger.

The Commission is thus delaying its decision on the pending GMO cases until EFSA has completed its safety analysis of the products and confirmed its positive opinions.

Laitenberger said the Commission has “every faith in EFSA” and feels it is the best placed scientific body to carry out a comprehensive, independent evaluation of GMO safety. The Commission will continue to base its decisions on science “as required by the legislation,” he added.

The Commission asked EFSA to: 

  • Analyse further scientific evidence on the effects on the environment and human health of the Amflora starch potato (see EURACTIV 17/07/07) and three hybrid maize varieties (MON863xMON810, MON863xNK603, MON863xMON810xNK60″), all of which contain antibiotic resistant genes;
  • review new scientific information on GMO maize Bt11 and 1507 and confirm the saftey of these products (which engineer their own pesticide to resist insects), and; 
  • confirm that the scientific evidence on herbicide-resistant GMO rice LL62 is complete.

The EU executive also asked its services to find a technical solution to the issue of low-level presence of non-approved GMOs in feed and foodstuffs before the summer.

The European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio) immediately expressed its disappointment about the Commission decision to send the dossiers back to EFSA and argues that the EU executive is denying European farmers access to technology. "In Europe, only one biotech crop is available for farmers, an insect-resistant Bt maize. Since 1998 not one single new biotech crop has been allowed to reach the market for cultivation. This stands in stark contrast to the 120 plus products for 23 crops available to farmers worldwide. With such politically motivated steps, Europe is holding up a well-established technology and is putting its credibility at risk," states the association. 

"We would have hoped the Commission could have done more for European farmers so that they can actually cultivate more biotech crops and not just import them," said EuropaBio Director Nathalie Moll

Environmental NGOs Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace qualified the decision as "a huge vote of no confidence" in the EU's GMO approval system, saying it raises "serious concerns about the ability of the agency to check the safety of GM crops". 

The decisions also "vindicate Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas' concerns about scientific inconsistencies in the EU GMO assessment," said Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's EU GMO campaign director. "If the Commission has no qualms with EFSA, then why is it asking it to review three products for the third time? EFSA has always found in favour of GMOs and relies entirely on data from the agro-chemical industry. By sending back the three GM plants today, the Commission has found that its food safety authority cannot be fully trusted although it does not dare to say so." 

"Commissioners are right to reject previous EFSA opinions on the three crops, but wrong not to take a decision on the two pesticide maizes. Given the serious scientific concerns linked to these crops, the dossier should have been rejected today, instead of delaying the process by two years by sending them back to EFSA," said Helen Holder,  GMO coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe

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 to report to the Commission, which then submits its decision to the Council. 

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

Both the special regulatory procedure and the role of EFSA have been the subject of criticism (see EURACTIV 05/12/05 and 10/03/06), and the Commission has decided to introduce practical changes to EFSA's GMO-approval process (EURACTIV 12/04/06).

Up till now, EFSA has never given a negative GMO recommendation. Since 2005, the Commission has decided to authorise the import of 16 GMOs.

Several member states have repeatedly invoked an EU safeguard clause enabling them to suspend the marketing or growth on their territory of GM crops that have EU-wide authorisation. But the Commission has never substantiated their applications and has always ordered them to lift the national bans.

In October 2007, Portuguese Environment Minister Francisco Nunes Correia said the majority of member states were opposed to the Commission forcing them to lift such bans. He added: "The Commission proposal prevails against the explicit will of one member state and that is something that has to give us pause for thought." 

  • It is not clear how long the new EFSA review process will take. 
  • If approved, the Amflora starch potato and GMO maize varieties Bt11 and 1507 would be the first new biotech crops authorised by the EU for cultivation since 1998. Currently only one crop - the insect resistant Bt maize crop - is authorised for cultivation in the EU.

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