Toward the end of 2010, the campaigning organisations Greenpeace and Avaaz presented the European Union (EU) with a petition, signed by over 1 million EU citizens, calling for a freeze on genetically modified (GM) crops until an independent scientific body is formed to properly assess their impact. Unfortunately, despite being legally obliged to respond under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has so far ignored the petition.

One of the selling points of the Lisbon Treaty, which reformed the functioning of the European Union (EU) following its enlargement to 27 Member States, was the introduction of the so-called ‘Citizens’ Initiative'. With the EU often seen as a bureaucratic and undemocratic institution, the Citizens’ Initiative was meant to increase engagement between legislators and populace. If a petition is received from a significant number of Member States that contains at least 1 million signatures, the European Commission (EC) is legally obliged to consider developing proposals based on the contents of the petition. It is, therefore, disappointing and highly worrying that the EU has not even bothered to acknowledge the first petition submitted under the new procedure – particularly when the petition concerns GM foods, one of the most vitally important issues on the face of the planet. But could it be the very topic of the petition that has prompted the democratic instincts of the EU to have gone so awry?

Brussels Sprouts and EFSA sauce

In its issue dated 12–25 November 2010, the UK current affairs magazine Private Eye carried a story in its “Brussels Sprouts” section about the EU’s silence on this petition. The story revealed several links between the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the biotechnology industry responsible for GM crops. Diana Banati, the chair of EFSA, was also employed by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) – which, according to its website, is “a nonprofit, worldwide organization whose mission is to improve public health and well-being…by engaging academic, government, and industry experts…to advance scientific understanding related to nutrition, food safety, risk assessment, and the environment”. Sounds suspiciously like a lobbying company to us, and French MEP José Bové agreed, referring to ILSI as “the lobbyist of agribusiness”. While ILSI denies it is a lobbying group, it is certainly funded by corporate giants like Monsanto, Syngenta and Coca-Cola. After being re-elected as EFSA chair on 21 October 2010, Banati resigned from the board of ILSI to avoid “creat[ing] a potential conflict of interests with EFSA activities”.

Also mentioned in the Private Eye article was Dr Harry Kuiper, a member and past Chair of EFSA’s Scientific Panel on GM Organisms. The article describes him as “co-ordinator of the EU’s GM food promotion agency, ENTRANSFOOD”, but that project has since been succeeded by another project known as SAFEFOOD, which Dr Kuiper does indeed co-ordinate. ENTRANSFOOD’s Concluding Conference back in 2003 made several pro-GM recommendations and was approvingly reported by Monsanto. The ongoing mission of SAFEFOODS appears to be to restore public confidence in the safety of GM crops. Its website states that SAFEFOODS seeks to “Promote food safety through a New Integrated Risk Analysis Approach for Foods”, because “Consumers have little confidence in the safety of their food supply” for some strange reason. So while ENTRANSFOOD/SAFEFOOD may not be quite “the EU’s GM food promotion agency”, it is certainly questionable whether Dr Kuiper’s role in EFSA is compatible with his status as SAFEFOOD co-ordinator.

A recurring theme

Unsavoury ties between EFSA and the biotechnology sector are nothing new. We have previously reported on the revolving door between membership of EFSA and industry. Organisations such as GM Watch and the Testbiotech Institute have also covered these issues. And while some may see such manoeuvering as of little consequence, consider this: EFSA has granted 125 authorisations for GM organisms since 1998, including Monsanto’s MON863 maize in April 2010.

We’re waiting…!

ANH-Intl and GM scrutinisers everywhere eagerly await a response from the EU to this petition. The EU is in dire need of more openness, transparency and citizen involvement, and the Citizens’ Initiative seems like a good step in the right direction. If the EU ignores the first Citizens’ Petition, the whole idea will look very much like an empty PR stunt to help the passage of the Lisbon Treaty. It will be a major scandal if the EU simply ignores the wishes of its citizens for real democracy in order to hasten the introduction of GM crops.

ANH Say No to GM campaign page