EU Commission proposes amendments to GMO approval process

29 April 2015

The European Commission unveiled a proposal last week to amend existing legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that would give individual member states greater freedom to restrict or prohibit their use in food and animal feed at the national level.

Under the changes to existing rules envisaged by the EU executive, member states will be able to “opt out” of including EU-wide approved GMO products in their food chain, even once these have been deemed safe to be placed on the bloc’s single market. Existing labelling rules will not be touched by the proposal.

Countries wishing to do so will, however, have to demonstrate that their measures comply with EU law and Brussels’ obligations at the WTO. Any opt-outs will need to be based on legitimate reasons other than those assessed at the EU level, namely, risks to human or animal health and the environment.

The Commission said that its new biotech proposal mirrors and complements EU legislation that entered into force last month, which allows member states to ban the cultivation of GM crops within their territory following approval in Brussels of the modified crop in question. (See BioRes, 4 March 2015)

“The Commission has listened to the concerns of many European citizens, reflected in the positions expressed by their national governments,” said Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.

“Once adopted, today's proposal will, fully in line with the principle of subsidiarity, grant member states a greater say as regards the use of EU-authorised GMOs in food and feed on their respective territories," he continued.

The new proposal will now have to undergo the regular EU co-legislative procedure through readings in both the Council and Parliament.

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The latest biotech proposal comes after the Commission concluded a review of its decision-making process for GMO authorisation. The hot-button topic has attracted attention from civil society and international partners alike.

A number of environmental groups have struck out against approving GMO food and feed even at the EU-wide level, arguing that this will cause the single market to be flooded with such products, to the detriment of both consumers and farmers.

Some of the EU’s trading partners have also criticised the 28-nation bloc’s existing GMO approval process for being slow and unpredictable. The Commission has in the past struggled to move forward with GMO approvals due to strong divisions between member states on the topic.

Ruling on a complaint brought by Argentina, Canada, and the US, a WTO dispute panel in 2006 found that the EU’s application of its approval process for the import and cultivation of GMO products from 1999 to 2003 effectively violated international trade rules by causing “undue delays.” The global trade arbiter also said that member state temporary national safeguard bans were not based on international risk assessment techniques.

Following last week’s announcement, US Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman criticised the new proposal, suggesting that it would permit member states to ignore EU science-based safety and environmental evaluations. 

“We are very disappointed by today's announcement of a regulatory proposal that appears hard to reconcile with the EU's international obligations,” the US trade chief said in a press release.

Froman added that the proposal was “not constructive” in light of ongoing efforts to negotiate a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the two economies.

The subject of GMO regulatory treatment was also raised by TTIP chief negotiators following a meeting last week in New York. The US chief negotiator Dan Mullaney told reporters that Washington was “disappointed” by the move, but is still reviewing the proposal’s possible implications, while EU chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia-Bercero said the Commission plan is in line with international commitments.

According to US figures, last year the EU imported a total of €3.1 billion (US$3.4 billion) worth of products from the US, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada that could potentially be affected by the new proposal.

Some green politicians have voiced concerns that the TTIP talks will force member states to lower the EU’s standards for GMO-free agriculture. EU officials earlier this year said that they will not compromise the bloc’s labelling efforts in this area.

In 2010, GM crops covered an estimated 148 million hectares in 29 countries while a further 30 countries had granted regulatory approval for GM crop import. Some 60 percent of the EU’s plant protein imports – namely, soybean and soya – largely come from countries where cultivation is dominated by GMOs, according to EU data.

GMO proponents tout their potential environmental mitigation and adaptation benefits and increased yields, while opponents express concerns around the effect these might have on human health, related impacts on the environment, biodiversity, and non-GM crop cultivation, as well as the possibility of entrenching market monopolies.

GMO import approvals on the move

Following hot on the heels of its latest biotech legislative move, the EU executive last Friday announced that it had cleared the import of 10 new types of genetically modified organisms and two kinds of cut flowers. It also renewed licenses for seven GMO products at the same time.

The authorisations have gone through the EU’s full procedure and received approval from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The move does not, however, cover cultivation approval but rather targets the import of GMOs for food and feed use together with the botanical additions.

A Commission press release explained that EU-wide approvals had not been granted since 2013 due to the decision-making procedure review.

The latest approvals add to a list of around 58 GMOs authorised for food and feed use in the EU, including products related to maize, cotton, soybean, oilseed rape, and sugar beet. However, only one GM crop –  Monsanto’s maize MON810 – is actually cultivated in the EU, specifically in Spain and Portugal.

ICTSD reporting; “EU approves first new genetically modified crops since 2013,” REUTERS, 24 April 2015; “Agriculture Commissioner promises GMO labelling, despite TTIP,” EURACTIV, 16 January 2015. 

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