24th Mar 2018

MEPs reject Commission plan on GMO opt-outs

  • Market in Venice: If Italy opted-out from GMOs, how could it enforce the ban? (Photo: Eric Parker)

Food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis failed on Wednesday (28 October) to convince the European Parliament to adopt a plan which would give member states the power to ban the use of genetically modified food ingredients.

In a Strasbourg plenary vote Wednesday afternoon 579 of 751 MEPs said the Commission should withdraw it, which the Commission refused to do. Following the Commission's refusal, the plenary voted again, inching towards unanimity, with 619 MEPs rejecting the plan.

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By rejecting the legislative proposal, the parliament put one of two required nails in the proposal's coffin. The plan needs approval from both national governments and the European Parliament before it can become law.

It followed a debate in which the proposal received widespread criticism, from all corners of the political spectrum.

The Commission wants to allow national governments to opt-out from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) even if they have an EU-wide stamp of approval. Despite the EU's scientific authorisation process, many European citizens are sceptical of the safety of GMOs.

But the Commission's plan was written off from left to right as “wrong”, “a serious mistake”, "half-baked”, “shoddy work”, full of “legal loopholes” and posing a “risk of undermining the single market".

MEPs could not see how national governments could ban GMOs that are allowed in other EU states, since there is freedom of movement in the bloc.

“If we now go back to national authorisations, we would have to have border controls again. We have enough discussions about border controls”, said German centre-right MEP Albert Dess, referring to the pressure migration has put on the EU's internal borders.

Green MEP Bart Staes from Belgium also noted he could not see the plan work in practice, considering that the EU imports genetically modified animal food for European livestock.

“If a boat of 50,000 tonnes of [genetically modified] soya arrives in the port of Antwerp, but France has decided to opt out, how will a truck be prevented from travelling to France?”, Staes said.

MEPs said governments will miss the tools to enforce a ban.

“We'd have to have checks at every farm”, German centre-left MEP Susanne Melior noted.

Other MEPs criticised the lack of an impact assessment, saying the proposal was no example of "better regulation", which the Commission of president Jean-Claude Juncker promised would be a guiding principle when it started work almost one year ago.

But Andriukaitis said it would be up to member states to carry out impact assessments for opt-outs.

"It was meaningless for the commission to carry out an ex ante impact assessment on a proposal which only gives a legal basis to the member states to act. ... The proposal has no impact in itself", he said.

During the morning's debate, Andriukaitis pleaded with MEPs to embrace the plan, because otherwise it would be a "lost opportunity to give a concrete answer to a genuine and legitimate concern of European citizens, which undermines not just the GMO authorisation system, but also confidence in the EU itself".

According to the Lithuanian commissioner there is no "alternative approach" to the current deadlock surrounding the authorisation of GMOs.

Because the issue is so divisive, member states never reach a qualified majority position, leaving the Commission to take the decision to approve a GMO (and receive the criticism).

One source from an anti-GMO country recently explained the current situation allowed member states to blame Brussels.

"The Commission wants to simply dump this back on the member states to get out of the difficulty", said French centre-right MEP Francoise Grossetete.

The EP's rejection wasn't unexpected and followed calls for withdrawal from its environment and agriculture committees.

Andriukaitis noted after the debate, ahead of the vote, he saw "a very real possibility the parliament may reject the proposal". However, he said the Commission will not budge.

"I would like to confirm the commission believes this proposal is the right way of addressing the challenges in relation to the decision-making proces on GMOs at European Union level. The commission will not withdraw its proposal", he said.

If the Commission does not withdraw the proposal, the legislative file goes back to the parliamentary committee.

However, the more likely scenario is that national governments will kill the proposal by also rejecting it, following heavy criticism from their side.

A source close to the presidency of the Council, which represents governments, told this website earlier this month it had not received new arguments from the Commission, which it requested after ministers said they were unconvinced.

"If the Commission does not provide a new justification, there will be considerable pressure on us to do the same", and call for a withdrawal, the contact said.

EU agriculture ministers pummel GMO opt-out plan

The EU commission wants to give countries the power to ban GMOs. “It's not useful, it's impracticable, and it's likely to bring a large majority against it”, was one reaction.

GMO opt-out plan remains in waiting room

The commission wants to give the power to member states to reject EU-approved genetically modified organisms, but the Maltese presidency is unlikely to approach the issue any time soon.

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