By Adam Smith

Science & communications officer, ANH-Intl

You might imagine that proposals by the Greek Presidency of the European Union (EU) in its last couple of weeks of office to allow EU Member States to decide whether to allow genetically modified (GM) crops on their territory would be a good thing. But a huge biotech-shaped hole in the draft legislation could effectively hand the ultimate decision over to the biotech companies.  Get involved with our Call to Action!

GM approval stalemate

GM is one of the EU’s hottest political potatoes; not surprising for a technology that is unnecessary, unpopular, harmful and potentially deadly. Although numerous GM crops have received positive opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for food and feed use (search the database for ‘Registered’ GM organisms while leaving the other fields blank), only two have been approved for cultivation. Only one of these, Monsanto’s MON810 GM maize, is grown at present. 

For some time, the European Commission has been trying to get things moving on the GM approvals front. The last attempt failed in 2012, when Member States couldn’t agree on a proposal to give EU Member States the power to reject GM cultivation “on grounds other than those related to the assessment of the adverse effect on health and environment which might arise from the deliberate release or the placing on the market of GMOs”. The current Greek EU Presidency has resurrected the proposals, which were agreed in principle by Member State representatives on 28th May. 

A crazy compromise

The latest ‘compromise’ plans being shepherded toward the European Parliament by Greece contain significant tweaks relative to previous versions:

  1. Ludicrously, Member States wishing to restrict GM cultivation on their territory will be obliged to ask permission of the biotech companies themselves. The proposed new Article 26b(1), which will be added to EU Directive 2001/18/EC, states: “During the authorisation procedure of a given GMO or during the renewal of consent/authorisation a Member State may request via the Commission the notifier/applicant [i.e. the biotech company] to adjust the geographical scope of its notification/application...” These plans have been around for some time, as a briefing document from biotech lobby group Europabio demonstrates
  2. In the unlikely event that the biotech company placidly agrees, the GM authorisation will be altered to prevent cultivation in that Member State. However, if it objects – and let’s face it, biotech will kick up a fuss every single time – the Member State may only restrict cultivation if it meets a daunting list of conditions contained in Article 26b(3) of the new proposals. As with the earlier plan, however, the grounds for restricting cultivation cannot include environmental or scientific aspects already assessed as part of the GM application process.

Legally lightweight

On this second point, the Greens/European Free Alliance grouping in the European Parliament points out that the limited range of EC-approved grounds for restricting GM cultivation would hold very little legal water. In other words, even if the EC accepted the Member State request to block GM cultivation, it wouldn’t stand up in court if the biotech company decided to sue under EU laws – let alone if the World Trade Organization (WTO) became involved. “It is almost certainly the case,” observed The Ecologist magazine, “That if they are wide-ranging enough to satisfy the EU's GMO sceptic citizens they will not be restrictive enough to withstand a legal challenge and vice versa”.

Pioneers in shoddy data

The drive to reform the EU’s GM approval process stems back to an embarrassing situation that arose around Pioneer’s 1507 GM maize, where even a vote by two-thirds of the EU’s 28 Member States wasn’t enough for the EC to rule out approving the GM crop. Against this background, German non-governmental organisation (NGO) Testbiotech has been doing its best to hold EFSA and the EC to account over Pioneer 1507 by highlighting gaping scientific data gaps in the approval process.  According to the NGO, EFSA’s latest response to two Testbiotech reports “in no way invalidates the evidence...which shows that the data currently used to exclude risks to the environment and human health are insufficient”

Greek EU Presidency employs Trojan horse

The Greek Presidency’s proposals to end the regulatory ‘log jam’ will be voted on at a meeting of the Environment Council on 12th June. If they are voted through, Europe moves one step closer to a situation where the only way for Member State governments to prevent GM crops that are unpopular and potentially disastrous from a health and environmental perspective – and which have been approved on the basis of shoddy and/or incomplete science – from being grown on their territory is to beg the GM producers to give them a break. With exquisite irony, the Greeks are bearing a Trojan horse that could throw open the EU’s doors to GM once and for all.

TTIPing the balance?

This is insane enough. But with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) waiting in the wings, things look grim indeed for the EU being able to maintain its status as a largely GM-free area. Whatever reassuring noises are made by EU negotiators, it’s difficult to believe that this ‘NAFTA on steroids’ will mean anything other than a watering down or neutering of the EU’s precautionary approach to GM, in favour of the zero regulation approach of the US. 

Call to action

  • People power has been by far the most potent weapon against GM to-date – now it’s time to do it again!  The Environment Council meeting on 12th June will be crucial, and it is vital to understand how to influence its decision. The Environment Council will be attended by the Ministers for the Environment of the 28 EU Member States, so there’s no point lobbying your Members of the European Parliament. Which is a good thing, as everything will be changing as a result of last week’s European elections. Instead, write directly to the environment minister of your country expressing your concern at the proposed changes to the GM approvals process. Urge him or her to vote against the proposals, always expressing yourself in a polite and reasonable manner
  • Go – or stay – organic as far as you can, especially when it comes to consuming animal products that will otherwise likely be fed on GM feed! Join an organic box scheme, buy what you can from farmers’ markets – or even consider growing some of your own food.  You’ll find plenty of great tips for making the move to organic in our article posted earlier this year.


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