6th Dec 2023

Brussels delays decision on GMO crops

The European Commission has pushed back a decision on whether to permit three genetically modified crops, saying that additional scientific analysis on their effects on the environment and human health was needed before they could be approved.

One of the crops is a potato that produces extra starch – suitable for industrial uses and animal feed - and contains a gene that confers resistance to certain antibiotics, and the other two are maize varieties engineered to produce their own pesticide.

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  • The GMO potato contains a gene that confers resistance to certain antibiotics (Photo: Wikipedia)

The commission asked its in-house food safety analysts, the European Food Safety Agency, to once again review the three strains – the third time it has requested EFSA review these particular crops.

In its previous assessments of the two GM maize varieties, EFSA stated that both varieties were safe.

"The commission will adopt these decisions if and when EFSA has confirmed the safety of these products," said commission spokesperson Johanes Laitenberger

The move reflects a sharp division within the commission. Environment commissioner Stavros Dimas had wanted the two maize crops rejected, while other commissioners are eager to show Europe is open for GMO business.

While member states are responsible for any decisions on approval of GM crops, they are often divided on the matter and meaning final decisions on the matter then revert to the commission.

However, the commission normally adopts decisions based on the opinion of EFSA, which anti-GMO campaigners complain bases its investigations on data provided by the GM industry itself. It has always declared any GM crops it has studied to be safe.

A number of member states have also accused EFSA of bias and say it gives the nod to GMOs without the necessary research.

The one maize crop was developed by Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Mycogen Seeds, while the other is a Syngenta product.

The potato, meanwhile, comes from the stable of Germany chemicals manufacturer BASF. Concerns about the possible negative effects of the potato have been raised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Institut Pasteur and the European Medicines Agency (EMEA).

Simultaneously, the commission asked Austria to lift its ban on the import and processing of two other strains of GM maize – MON 810 from Monsanto and T25 from Bayer.

Green MEP Caroline Lucas said: "The constant indecision and the shirking of responsibility on GM crops within the European Commission is embarrassing."

"The Commission can no longer hide behind EFSA and delay important decisions on GMOs. Sending back these files for reconsideration is a farce and weakens the standing of the Commission itself."

"Under current practices, the crops will only have been tested for 90 days for health effects – as opposed to the two-year testing requirement for standard pesticides.

"Additionally, the GM potato contains a gene that makes cells resistant to antibiotics. We have already seen some of the problems associated with the widespread use of antibiotics and resulting resistance. If this gene were to be released into the environment, it could create serious problems in treating a range of diseases."

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Europe called for EFSA to be reformed, "to ensure that its opinions are scientifically sound and impartial.

"The agency is understaffed and lacks the appropriate expertise to fulfil its legal obligations on EU GMO risk assessments," said the two groups in a statement.

Marco Contiero, Greenpeace Europe's GMO campaigner, said: "Today's decisions are a huge vote of no confidence in the EU food authority and vindicate environment commissioner Stavros Dimas' concerns about scientific inconsistencies in the EU GMO assessment."

"If the commission has no qualms with EFSA, then why is it asking it to review three products for the third time?" he asked.

"EFSA has always found in favour of GMOs and relies entirely on data from the agro-chemical industry. By sending back the three GM plants today, the commission has found that its food safety authority cannot be fully trusted although it does not dare to say so."

"Asking Europe's underfunded and inadequate food agency to look at the safety of these crops for the third time is like putting a fox in charge of a hen house," he added.

The commission however defended its food safety authority, saying: "[We] will continue to work closely with EFSA and support the agency's capacity to assess the long term environmental impacts of GMO cultivation."

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