EU proposal on GMOs draws concern on all sides

The EU Commission this week announced a proposal for “a more flexible approach” towards the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Following a review on authorisation of GMOs, Member States will now be given the chance to opt out of the cultivation and importing of specific GMOs authorised as safe at an EU level.

National governments will, however, have to give “legitimate reasons” for such withdrawals and these are unlikely to be granted on environmental or scientific grounds as the European Food and Safety Agency (EFSA) will have passed the product as harmless; the EFSA has, in fact, never refused to authorise a GMO application. Currently, only one GM crop, MON810 maize, is cultivated in the EU but more than 50 are imported and used commercially, mostly as animal feed. 17 new products are expected to be authorised before the end of May.

Despite the Commission’s claim that the proposal gives “more freedom” to Member States, there have been critical voices on all sides. For many, it indicates the controversial and not yet agreed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is already influencing policy, TTIP’s aim being ‘regulatory harmonisation’ with the US, a country where 70% of processed food is made from GMOs. These campaigners suggest it is a catch-22 situation in favour of agribusiness lobbyists as it will weaken the EU’s potential to reject GMOs, with the introduction of a second authorisation stage, but it will remain very difficult for Member States to opt out.

The same pro-GMO lobbyists, however, are concerned about the trade implications. Some say it will allow for bans on safe products that will restrict farmers’ sources of feed; others that within a single market you cannot allow for restrictions on trade.

This last is a point raised by Scottish MEP Alyn Smith, who dismisses it as an “unworkable fragmentation” of the market. And his concern is twofold; the UK government is a firm supporter of GMOs (and backer of TTIP) and it would be impossible to restrict trade of the potentially rapidly increasing amount of GM crops and GMO products within the UK, creating further problems for the anti-GMO Scottish government. The co-existence of GMOs and uncontaminated organic or ‘conventional’ crops is, at the EU’s admission, problematic.

It is unclear what the effects of the change will be. The EU’s hands-off approach indicates its intention to fall to the whims of agribusiness rather than the voice of its citizens or the warnings of scientists. The proposal boasts “changes that reflect public views”; said views are long-standing, widespread disapproval for GMOs. At one time, this forced GMOs to be banned by the EU, until formal complaint from the US, Canada and Argentina led the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to repeal the ban, judging it to be ‘trade-restrictive’.

The new President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, acknowledges this. He announced the review that led to this proposal with the clear goal of giving more say to Member States after the controversial authorisation of a second GM maize crop in 2014 despite strong opposition from national governments. He also advocates that the “majority view of democratically elected governments be given at least the same weight as scientific advice, notably when it comes to the safety of the food we eat and the environment in which we live”.