Fears over Europe's GM crop plan

7th Jul 2011

A proposal to let nations opt out of growing European-approved GM varieties is under fire from all sides.

After a decade in which just a single genetically modified (GM) crop was approved for commercial planting in the European Union (EU), the European Commission has tried to break the logjam. But its new proposal, which would allow individual member states to choose whether or not to grow an approved GM crop within their borders, is likely to create further uncertainty within the agricultural biotechnology industry. The plan has drawn fire from all sides of the intense debate over GM crops, with industry officials, farmers and anti-GM campaigners all condemning the move.

The EU currently takes advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent body based in Parma, Italy, which conducts a risk assessment of each GM organism. The Council of Ministers then makes a decision on the crop that applies to farmers and agribusinesses throughout Europe. But the council's voting system means that opposition by just a few of the 27 member states can block the introduction of a crop, in which case the European Commission makes a final decision. So far, only a potato with modified starch content — Amflora, developed for industrial rather than food use by German chemical company BASF, based in Ludwigshafen am Rhein — has been approved for cultivation in the EU, and 16 other crops are still awaiting final approval.

The new measure, announced on 13 July, would allow member states, or even regions within countries, to restrict GM crops, regardless of whether the EFSA has determined they pose no risk to human health or the environment and whether they have been approved by the European Commission. The commission says that, in principle, the new arrangement should make it easier to secure EU-wide approval for crops.

Several companies said that although they welcomed the commission's efforts to unblock the approval process for GM crops, the plan undermines the science-based authorization process and the principles of the single market. The proposal would also allow national governments to modify the existing rule allowing products to be labelled as GM-free if they contain no more than 0.9% of GM ingredients. This would lead to a patchwork of rules across the EU, industry experts say, complicating the development of their products. "Our concern is that the proposal potentially adds more complexity and unpredictability into the process, and we doubt whether this will speed up the approvals process," says Mark Titterington, head of government and public affairs for Europe at Swiss agricultural company Syngenta. "A better and more predictable approval process, and the extent of demand from farmers for the technology, will obviously have an influence on whether we undertake GM research in Europe in the future."

Some farmers have also criticized the proposal, fearing that it will drive investment in agrobiotech away from Europe and make their industry less competitive. "This decision sends a clear signal to the rest of the world that the EU lacks interest in innovation and new technologies for a competitive agriculture industry and that it does not use evidence and science in its decision-making," the UK National Farmers Union's chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, Helen Ferrier, said in a statement. "The very real danger is that it risks discouraging technology companies investing in Europe."

Meanwhile, environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are concerned that devolving decision-making on GM crops will make it more difficult to block their development.

Yet not everyone sees the commission's proposal as a blow for science-based decision-making. "It's impossible to interpret science for the purpose of policy-making without making value judgements," says Andy Stirling, science director of the Science and Technology Policy Research unit at the University of Sussex, UK. As "agricultural systems, environments and economies all vary", he says, it is reasonable for member states to adapt scientific guidance according to their own circumstances.

The European Parliament and Council of Ministers are expected to discuss the proposals, with a view to legal implementation, this autumn.

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