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29th Mar 2020

EU ministers agree rules allowing choice on GM crops

  • Monsanto's MON810 maize is primarily grown in Spain (Photo: European Commission)

A political agreement on genetically modified (GM) crops by EU environment ministers in Luxembourg on Thursday (12 June) has sparked protest from both pro-green NGOs and biotech companies.

The agreement breaks a deadlock on a four-year old EU legislative proposal on GM crop cultivation. Twenty-six ministers backed the agreement, while two abstained.

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The bill aims to set up a legal basis for member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs that have been authorised or are under authorisation at the EU level.

"This new system is going to guarantee a choice for all states. Nothing will be imposed," said French Environment Minister Segolene Royal, reports Reuters, with France being one of the strong opponents of GM foods.

But Brussels-based Friends of the Earth Europe described the agreement as “a poisoned chalice” in favour of GM crops manufactured by biotech companies like US firm Monsanto and Swiss-based Syngenta.

The NGO says the bill would give the companies the legal right to decide whether a national ban should be allowed.

“It is unacceptable that companies like Monsanto will be given the first say in any decision to ban their products,” said Mute Schimpf, a food expert at the NGO.

She noted governments should not have to ask the permission to ban unwanted GM crops from the companies who profit from them.

“If this law is passed, more GM crops could be allowed in Europe, dramatically increasing the risk of contamination of our food and farming,” she added.

But a spokesperson at Monsanto said the NGO’s concern the bill would entitle a company to push GM crops into a member state is false.

“This claim that companies would have a veto over whether or not the member states would be allowed to ban something is ludicrous,” said Brandon Mitchener.

Mitchener said the proposal gives member states that oppose GM cultivation the ability to restrict or prohibit cultivation of GM crops based on non-scientific grounds.

“This decision would be tragic-comic if it didn’t send such a bad signal to the rest of the world that it’s okay to ignore science and ban things for populist purposes,” he said.

Mitchener says Monsanto, in any case, has no intention of introducing new GM seeds into Europe.

The company already sells and manufactures a genetically modified maize known as MON810. The maize contains a bug-killing protein sold and used primarily in Spain.

“We have nothing else left and no interest in bringing any GM seeds [to the EU] any time soon,” said Mitchener.

At the moment, member states can only use safeguard clauses to ban cultivation based on risk.

But the Luxembourg agreement, if adopted following negotiations with the upcoming European Parliament, would extend the legal possibilities for member states on planting GM crops.

National authorities, for instance, would be able to reject GM cultivation for environmental reasons, socioeconomic reasons, land use and town planning, agricultural policy objectives and public policy issues.

Shipments of GM crops across the EU, even if banned in one member state, would be allowed in order not to disrupt the internal market.

The European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) would determine whether or not a GM seed is safe for cultivation. The agency, in the past, has clashed with pro-transparency campaigners and with the European Court of Auditors, the EU’s financial watchdog, for being too close to the industry.

However, a member state can still reject planting an Efsa approved GM seed under new a two-step procedure but under certain conditions.

"Those who do not want to cultivate can first try a geographic exclusion using the commission as an intermediary with the company which applied, if that does not succeed, they have a right to opt-out under certain grounds, so it's a not carte blache," EU commissioner for health Tonio Borg told reporters in Luxembourg.

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