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23rd Mar 2019

EU states to discuss 'reasons' for national GMO bans

  • Europe has remained deadlocked over GMO cultivation for years (Photo: European Commission)

EU environment ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (14 March) will discuss a list of possible reasons why individual member states could opt to ban the cultivation of genetically-modified crops in future.

"Public morals", "public order" and "cultural policy" are among the options listed in a European Commission working document, seen by this website.

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The paper builds on a commission proposal last July to partially renationalise decisions over GMO cultivation, after years of deadlock in the area.

Under the proposal, the EU would continue to approve GMO cultivation along environmental and human health lines, after which member states could then opt to ban a particular crop, based on a different set of criteria.

The plan has met with considerable opposition however, with France and Germany concerned that it could result in the fragmentation of the EU's internal market, as well as run into trouble with the World Trade Organisation. Governments have also pressed the commission to provide details of the criteria they could use when deciding on a ban, with debate on the subject now set for Monday.

Under a "public morals" option, the commission suggests religious, philosophical and ethical concerns are all potential reasons for a national ban.

Efforts to preserve organic and conventional farming systems could lead member states to invoke the avoidance of "GMO presence in other products" as a reason, says the working paper. "Social policy objectives" include the preservation of certain farming types to maintain jobs, while member states could also cite reasons of "cultural policy".

"General environmental policy objectives" such as the maintenance of landscape features and certain habitats, is also listed as a possible option. This differs from the environmental criteria currently used at the EU-level by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which looks at issues such as toxicity and the impact on micro-organisms.

Member states could use one or a combination of these reasons, suggests the commission.

"However the sole invocation ... will not be sufficient to meet the scrutiny of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The measure should be justified, proportionate and non discriminatory," states the working paper.

Environmental groups argue that member states opting for a national ban under these options would be vulnerable to future legal challenges. "We believe that the commission's July proposal must give member states the right to invoke health and [all] environmental reasons, otherwise this debate is going to run on even longer," Greenpeace director of agriculture Marco Contiero told EUobserver.

At present, the commission authorises GMO cultivation on the basis of an opinion from EFSA, a controversial body whose views have sometimes clashed with national scientific advice. As a result, certain countries including Austria, France and Hungary have imposed temporary "safeguard" measures to prevent EU-approved crops from being cultivated within their borders.

"The commission has failed to act as a risk manager," said Mr Contiero. "The proposal is meant to give member states the right to ban GMOs but in reality it doesn't because it maintains EFSA at the heart of the decision-making process."

Diplomats concede that a large number of questions still need answering. "Our aim is to keep this proposal alive," said a Hungarian EU presidency official on Thursday.

Anti-GMO states including Hungary, Austria and Greece support the commission's proposal as a way to impose permanent national bans. The Netherlands supports it as a way of clearing the road for GMO cultivation, but many other states are seeking further clarifications.

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