Plans to radically overhaul EU rules on growing genetically modified (GM) crops are welcomed by some as boosting productivity, but others say the move will unleash uncertainty, discord and a deluge of litigation.
In an unprecedented step to hand EU powers back to national capitals, the European Commission has drafted plans to let countries decide themselves whether to grow or ban GM crops, a gesture born of frustration over deadlock in the EU's approval system.
At the heart of opposition to what is in effect the EU giving up its jealously guarded control over homogeonous farming policy is a concern that the bloc will fracture, leaving the way open for years of legal wrangling and conflict.
"GM crops are an extremely divisive subject between member states, but if they do it for this issue, what other issues will they do it for in future?" said Jo Swinnen, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels.
"This is actually an enormous precedent to hand EU powers back to the member states," said Swinnen.
The rule changes would allow pro-GM countries such as Spain and the Czech Republic to press ahead with growing newly approved crops, opening up new markets for major biotech companies such as Monsanto of the United States and Switzerland's Syngenta.
But even Spain, the EU's leading GM crop producer, has criticised the plan for seeking to de-harmonise the bloc's current policy on cultivation, a view shared by other countries, including Belgium.
GMO champions say the crops boost yields and resistance to disease and drought, important as sensitivities increase over food security, but further muddying the waters as the industry itself is unsure about the EU rule changes.
Biotech companies, rather than sensing an opportunity, say the proposals would create legal uncertainty throughout the production chain and spark internal market disputes.
"You're going to have different rules in different EU countries. It's just inviting legal disputes, and the lawyers are going to love it," said Julian Little, spokesman for German biotech firm Bayer CropScience.
But having defended the EU's current GM policy in global trade disputes and taken the flak for approving GM products when member states were undecided, the Commission appears determined to push through its plans.
The proposals have been designed to try and minimise the chances for governments or the European Parliament to block or change them.
The first element of the proposals are non-compulsory guidelines to member states on the "coexistence" of GM and non-GM farming, designed to introduce the change in policy as soon as they are tabled on 13 July.
As the guidelines are non-legislative, they can be adopted by the Commission with no opportunity for governments to block them, but it would still be for countries to decide whether or not to act on them.
Knowing that this is a stop-gap measure at best, the Commission will also propose a legal change allowing countries to ban GM crops for reasons other than health and safety or coexistence grounds.
The idea is to limit the legislative debate to this change alone without opening up the legislation to a full and complex revision, but some doubt it will work.
"Politically speaking, the Commission can ask the European Parliament and Council for a restricted procedure, but there's nothing legally to stop the Parliament from opening up the whole legislation [on GMO cultivation]," Greenpeace GMO policy director and former lawyer Marco Contiero said.
By allowing countries to ban GM crops that have been scientifically assessed and approved for cultivation at EU level, some argue the Commission is setting a dangerous precedent.
"Moving away from scientific risk assessment as the basis of decision-making may seriously affect public biotechnology research in the EU, and confidence in science in general," said Piet van der Meer of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI), a network of public sector biotechnology scientists.
It could also lead to fresh trade disputes, after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) largely backed a complaint brought against the EU in 2003 by the United States, Canada and Argentina, who argued the bloc was failing to apply its own scientific approval procedures to GM products.
Under the Commission's proposals, individual countries could be targeted in future trade disputes for their policies on GM cultivation, and the US and others may be more willing to file WTO complaints than if the EU were acting in unison.
GM cultivation in Europe – currently less than 100,000 hectares compared with 134 million worldwide – will only rise if the proposals result in approvals of more GMOs at EU level, even if dissenters subsequently ban them in their own countries.
Serial abstainers include France and Ireland, while no-voters number Greece, Austria and Luxembourg.
"These countries fundamentally, philosophically, party politically always vote 'no', and will continue to do that even if you give them the opportunity to opt out later," argued Little.
But after more than a decade in the firing line, the Commission's priority now is to let member states take responsibility for their own GM crop policies and the political controversy that surrounds them.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)