Brussels Supports Decentralised GM Crop Proposal

11 July 2011

European Parliament last week voted to support a Commission proposal to allow individual European governments decide national policy on cultivating genetically modified (GM) crops. A detailed list of possible grounds for bans accompanied the proposal's approval including environment, socio-economic considerations, and land use.

"This vote is a clear signal from the Parliament to the Council and Commission," said French Minister Corinne Lepage, draftswoman on GM authorisation. "Some agricultural and environmental effects, as well as the socio-economic impact linked to contamination, can be cited by member states to justify a ban or restriction."

The initial Commission proposal was written so as to allow member states to restrict or ban GM cultivation on all grounds except environment and health. This was because environment and health concerns were already supposed to have been considered as part of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) safety approval process (See Bridges Trade BioRes, 7 February 2011).

By maintaining environmental grounds in the proposal, Brussels reports that it will provide member states with "a solid legal basis" for banning GM crop cultivation under the WTO legal structure.

A variety of other grounds were also listed based off of the indicative list the Commission had previously developed. These include reasons that range from environmental aspects, such as pesticide resistance and species invasiveness to socio-economic grounds like conservation of biodiversity.

The European Health Minister John Dalli said that specifying the grounds on which the cultivation could be restricted would enhance the legislation. "I can therefore support this approach," he said.

Dalli also cautioned that the environmental considerations listed must be distinct from those that have been considered by the EFSA.

Brussels responds to deadlock

Last year, the Commission proposed that the decision-making process on GM crop cultivation be partially decentralised in response to a deadlock in the crop approval process (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 23 July 2010).

Only two genetically modified seeds have been approved for cultivation in Europe: a strain of maize produced by agriculture giant Monsanto and a type of starch potato from Amflora, which was approved in March, but only for industrial uses (see Bridges Trade BioRes and 19 March 2010).

Brussels has also been struggling with how to deal with several member states that have defied the centralised policy on the issue and unilaterally implemented GM crop bans. Member states Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, and Luxembourg have issued bans on the cultivation of GM seeds, citing health and environmental concerns under a safeguard clause contained in the 2001 directive (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 3 April 2009).
Other countries, however - including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom - appear more open to allowing their farmers to grow the altered crops.

Critics fear EU fragmentation

While the vote passed with 548 votes in favour, the 84 votes against the proposal are some of the key powers within Europe (See Bridges BioRes, 21 March 2011).

Critics fear that the legislation will lead to fragmentation of internal EU policies, uncertainty for farmers and incompatibility with WTO law. Given the continued opposition, analysts say it is unlikely the draft legislation will be finalised this year.

Lawmakers also voted to maintain the current framework for GM certification but is asking the EFSA to improve its risk assessment by examining the long-run environmental effects and the effects on non-target organisms before authorising a new GM crop. They also insisted that member states must take measures to prevent GM contamination of conventional or organic crops.

Environmental groups lauded the move, saying that national governments will be in a better position enact GM policy that is more reflective of the will of their citizenry.

"This is a clear signal from MEPs that they are on the side of the majority of European citizens who oppose GM crops," said Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. "It is now up to the Commission and governments to make sure safeguards against GM crops are upheld."

ICTSD reporting. "Parliament paves way for GMO crop bans," EURACTIV, 6 July 2011; "EU Lawmakers Give Backing For National GM Crop Bans," REUTERS, 6 July 2011.

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