EU lawmakers voice concerns on GMO reform proposal, echoed in WTO

21 July 2015

Many members of the European Parliament expressed strong opposition during a debate held in Brussels on 15 July to a draft an EU law that would enable any member state to restrict or prohibit the use of EU-approved genetically modified organisms (GMO) for food or feed in its territory.  

“There is a clear majority in the European Parliament against this proposal” said Giovanni La Via, chair of the Parliament’s Environment Committee in a press release following the discussion.

“This proposal is in conflict with the principles of “better regulation” and transparency which the new European Commission has taken on. After so many years we have spent on getting rid of internal barriers, this proposal could fragment the internal market and lead to border inspections, and we all worked to get rid of those, back in the day,” La Via continued, expressing views reported by a number of different political party representatives in the Parliament.

The proposed law, put forward by the Commission in April, would grant individual states within the 28 nation bloc the ability to “opt-out” of allowing GMOs into their food chain even where these have been given the green light at the EU level to be placed on the single market. The EU register of authorised GMOs shows that some 68 strains have currently been approved for food and feed uses covering cotton, soybean, sugar beet, and maize. (See BioRes, 29 April 2015)

Political stances on GMOs vary widely within the bloc, making a “qualified majority” either in favour or against GMO-related authorisations hard to reach. On a number of occasions this has resulted in a “no opinion,” vote after which the GMO legal framework dictates that the final decision on the authorisation is left to the Commission.

A number of member states have expressed dissatisfaction with current arrangements and political stalemate in Brussels has led to blockages in GMO approvals. Popular backlash also prompted the imposition by some EU countries of national safeguard bans to prohibit cultivation of biotech crops in their territories for health or environmental reasons, running against European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) clearance.

Both moves have received pushback from the bloc’s trade partners. In 2006, for example, a WTO dispute panel found in a case brought by Argentina, Canada, and the US that the EU’s application of its GMO approval process from 1999 to 2003 effectively violated international trade rules by causing “undue delays.” That panel also rejected the Commission’s defence of the national bans as precautionary measures. 

Last March meanwhile, after nearly five years of heated negotiations, the EU approved new rules allowing member states to restrict or ban the cultivation of GMOs in their territory. (See BioRes 4 March 2015). 

Pushback from parliament, ministers

The majority of discussion during the Parliamentary debate in July revolved around the Commission proposal’s lack of clarity as well as potential problems that could arise in the context of the EU’s internal market and WTO obligations.

“Lots of terms used in the Commission proposal are legally undefined,” said MEP Gesine Meissner following the debate. “The implementation of the proposal would be impossible,” she continued.

While the reform gives member states the power to ban the use of GMOs in their food chain, individual nations would not be able to prevent their import because of the EU single market rule, making implementation of the proposal unclear according to some Parliamentary members.

In addition, representatives were concerned that the draft did not include an impact assessment on the proposal. According to recent EU statistics, more than 60 percent of the EU’s needs in vegetable proteins are met through imports of soybean and soymeal from other countries where GMO cultivation is widespread.

For food, in contrast, many business operators across the bloc do not stock GM food for a variety of reasons. EU legislation currently also requires labelling on any food or feed where GMOs constitute over 0.9 percent of the product. Some member states have adopted “GM-free” labelling schemes for food and feed products.

Following resounding resistance to the proposal in the July Parliamentary debate, the Commission nevertheless warned that no legislative “plan B” was available, and that the EU executive branch would have no choice but to move ahead with a number of GMO authorisations found to be safe by EFSA.

The Environment Committee will vote on the proposal on 12-13 October, after which it will be put to a vote by Parliament at the October plenary session. As part of the bloc’s co-legislative procedure, any changes would also need to be signed off by EU ministers, who reportedly also widely panned the proposal in a meeting held on 13 July. Agriculture ministers expressed similar views to Parliamentarians on the incomplete and impractical nature of the proposal, according to media reports.

WTO concerns

The Commission’s proposal has attracted the attention of international trade partners. The WTO Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures, which is responsible for food safety as well as animal and plant health, heard concerns from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Canada, and the US regarding the draft legislation during a meet held on 15-16 July.

While the EU did submit the proposed legislation to the WTO’s Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade, these member states are concerned that the proposed revision would create unnecessary obstacles to international trade with regard to food and feed products.

In response, the EU stressed that the proposal does not introduce any restriction or ban on biotech products, but only offers the opportunity for EU states to opt out. The EU also stated that the legislation does not relate to SPS measures since the proposal advocates opting out based on “reasons of the public interest” and not for the protection of the life or health of humans or animals.

ICTSD reporting; “EU agriculture ministers pummel GMO opt-out,” EU OBSERVER, 14 July 2015.  

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