France suspends GM maize, citing new scientific evidence

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on 11 January 2008 that his country would invoke an EU safeguard clause enabling it to suspend the marketing and growth on its territory of a GM crop that has EU-wide authorisation.

The crop in question is a variety of maize, MON 810, produced by the US biotech giant Monsanto. The strain contains a gene allowing the maize to defend itself against the European corn borer which regularly destroys maize harvests all over Europe. MON 810 has so far been the only genetically modified crop to have market authorisation in France, one of Europe’s largest maize growers. 

The decision came after France’s ‘Provisional High Authority on GM Organisms’ presented, on 9 January 2008, the conclusions of its study on the effect of the MON 810 crop on health and the environment. The committee, composed of 15 scientific experts, announced that it had found “new scientific facts relating to a negative impact on flora and fauna”. However, not all its members signed the final declaration, arguing that they did not have enough time to conduct the study.

These “new scientific facts” include cross-pollination of GM and non-GM fields at local level and negative effects on insects, a species of earthworm and micro-organisms. 

Under EU law, the Commission has 60 days to decide on the validity of the new scientific evidence discovered by the French committee on GMOs. If the Commission does not consider the evidence produced to be valid, it can force France to lift its ban, unless a qualified majority against such a decision is reached in the Council of Ministers.

Austria, Germany and Poland have previously invoked the safeguard clause without success, as the Commission has never substantiated their applications. Moreover, EU environment ministers have repeatedly failed to reach a qualified majority for or against the Commission’s proposals to lift the national bans.

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

All the commissioners are set to debate GMOs in early February 2008 to clarify the EU executive’s policy stance on the issue.

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