EU's new GMO law leaves questions unanswered
By Eric Maurice
A new directive on cultivation of genetically-modified crops (GMOs) in Europe breaks an old deadlock between the European Commission, member states, and producers. But it leaves open political and legal questions.
Under the proposal, EU member states will be able to ban or restrict cultivation of GMOs on their territory, but they will not be able to block the authorisation process at EU-level.
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The new rules give member states a two-step possibility for refusing GMO cultivation.
First, during the EU authorisation process, they will be able to ajust the geographical scope of the cultivation. Second, if a crop is authorised by the commission, they will be able to restrict or prohibit cultivation on their territory.
The directive gives member states the possibility to ban GMO cultivation on environmental grounds, but also for other reasons, such as socio-economic impact or public policy.
They will no longer need to provide new evidence of risk to health or the environment.
The directive, which was approved on 2 March, rubber-stamps a compromise voted by the European Parliament in January. It was signed into law on Wednesday (11 March) and should be effective in April or May.
It is "a positive step in aligning the legislation with citizens' expectations while respecting the rights of all parties", said health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.
"The new rules give member states the freedom of choice", said Janis Duklavs, the minister of agriculture of Latvia, the country currently holding the EU presidency.
But NGOs and GMO critics are sceptical about the new law, saying member states opposed to GM crops still don’t have all the guarantees they need.
"This is no 'carte blanche' for the European Commission to push through new GM crops at the EU level", wrote Mute Schimpf, from Friends of the Earth Europe, in an email to this website.
"[But] one major weakness is that it is uncertain whether countries would be able to ban crops due to negative environmental impacts at the regional level. Existing EU policy only assesses potential environmental harm at the level of the EU bloc”.
She also criticised "the notion that sovereign states, acting in their role as risk managers, should ask permission from companies which profit from GM cultivation before restricting the cultivation of GM crops in their territory".
For Green MEP and anti-GMO activist Jose Bove, the new directive is simply "bad legislation".
"Instead of EU legislation, we have multi-faceted legislation between states. That can have two consequences: it weakens expertise and it is a legal danger", Bove told this website.
He pointed at the possibility that GMO-refusing states could be sued by other states at the World Trade Organisation for distortion of competition, or sued by companies in an investor-state dispute mechanism that is likely to be introduced in a future free-trade agreement with the US.
Meanwhile, the first crop to be authorised according to the new rules should be Pioneer’s 1507 maize.
In September 2013, the commission was told by the European Court of Justice not to further delay a decision whether to authorise the product.
The ruling came after legal action by Dupont Pioneer, the company that makes it.
In February 2014, a large majority of member states voted against giving it a green light, but failed to definitively block the EU-level decision.
Maize 1507 "should [now] be approved for cultivation without further delay", said DuPont Pioneer in a statement.
"We submitted the cultivation application of our 1507 GM maize product 14 years ago. 1507 meets all EU regulatory requirements, has received seven positive safety opinions published by Efsa [the EU's food safety agency]”.
So far, only one crop has been authorized for cultivation in Europe, maize MON810, made by another American company, Monsanto.
Now the legislative deadlock has been broken, the EU commission said it will not rush to take a decision on maize 1507 or the eight other pending requests, which are still in the early stages of the approval process.
An EU official told this website it will first wait for the review of the decision-making process that commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said would be published six months after the beginning of the EU executive’s mandate.
The report by Vytenis Andriukaitis is expected in April or May, just when the new directive on cultivation will come into force.
"The issue is not to run but to find a sustainable solution", said the official, who did not say if the new directive could be compromised by the review.
Whereas the commission and Efsa have often been criticised for being too favorable of GMOs, Juncker is considered by some as more suspicious of genetically modified organisms.
The official insisted that the commission will take into account the position of member states, but observed that there is some pressure from the agriculture sector and that the commission wants to avoid the risk of going to court again.
Science and politics
The review should be an opportunity to straighten expertise, said Jose Bove.
"The only expertise we have is done by Efsa on specific scientific aspects", he said.
"There is no environmental, socio-economic, agronomical aspects. We need a wider expertise", he added, contesting the commission's view that science and politics are two separate sides of the issue.