25th Oct 2016


GMOs, the commission’s next homemade PR disaster

  • Approval of new GM maize crops gives fodder to critics who say Europe's not listening. (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans has argued that EU buck-passing contributed to the Brexit vote. He also said EU governments have developed a habit of taking ownership when things go well and blaming it on Brussels when it doesn't.

Now the commission is about to serve up a fresh meal to EU-bashers on a silver platter. This time, the main ingredient will be three pesticide-producing GM maize varieties.

  • 19 EU countries have used the EU’s new opt-out mechanism to ban GM crops within their borders. (Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT))

In the recent battle over Europe's most used and most controversial weedkiller, glyphosate, Timmermans complained that key countries abstained from a crucial vote to decide the fate of the chemical. "The commission does not have the luxury to abstain," he told MEPs in June.

It’s fair enough to complain about EU countries hiding behind the commission, but is it right for the commission to impose a decision that only a minority of EU governments wants to take?

Unkept promises

Under the current process – known as comitology – EU countries can't do much to reign in the commission. They can block a commission decision only if they can muster a qualified majority against it. If there is no qualified majority in favour of, or against, the proposal, this counts as "no opinion".

The commission can then go ahead without majority support for its proposal. The commission has done this in decisions on GM crops and pesticides, but in no other policy fields, as a report shows.

In February 2014,19 out of 28 EU countries opposed the approval of DuPont Pioneer's 1507 GM maize. But short of a qualified majority, even 19 governments could not force the commission to scrap the approval.

Responding to this surreal situation, Juncker said in 2014, before taking office, that he "would not want the commission to be able to take a decision when a majority of member states has not encouraged it to do so." He promised to change the way GM crops are authorised.

But Juncker has done nothing to change the process. Instead, his commission has authorised at least 30 other GM crops for import to the EU, even though the crops were backed by less than half of EU countries.

Three GM maize proposals

On 24 June, day after the Brexit vote, the commission issued new proposals to allow the cultivation of 1507 and two other GM maize varieties, Syngenta's Bt11 and Monsanto's MON810. MON810 is currently the only GM crop that can be legally grown in the EU. Monsanto is seeking re-approval as the licence expires.

Each of the three GM maize varieties produces a pesticide that is meant to kill the larvae of insect pests. But the toxins also harm other insects, including butterflies and ladybirds.

The commission hopes potential harm can be managed if "refuge areas" and "isolation distances from protected habitats" are prescribed. However, such mandated refuges are rarely enforced and therefore ineffective, according to a recent review by the US Academies of Science.

Rather than trying to control potentially unmanageable risks, the EU should stop them arising in the first place. European and international laws allow a rejection "where there are indications that the possible effects on the environment … may be potentially dangerous" and "scientific information is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain". (This is what's known as the precautionary principle, a common sense norm which is enshrined in the EU treaty).

An out of touch commission

Juncker may be hoping that, this time, fewer governments will oppose the commission. After all, 19 EU countries have used the EU's new opt-out mechanism to ban the crops within their borders.

But what does it say about democracy if the commission backs the approval of GM crops that can – at best – only be grown in nine out of 28 countries? How can the commission justify representing the position of only a handful of EU countries, while ignoring the majority?

Add to this the objections voted by the European Parliament on 6 October, and public opposition, and the commission has cooked up another homemade PR disaster.

With these GM maize authorisations the EU will further damage its already tarnished image of an organisation that is out of touch with its citizens and steered by corporate interests. The only way out is for the commission to withdraw the authorisation proposals, and instead propose to ban the GM crops, based on the EU's precautionary principle.

Finally, Juncker must act on his promise of 2014 and the commission's recent commitment to "consider amendments to the rules governing EU-wide authorisation procedures in certain sensitive sectors in order to ensure that the commission is not alone in assuming the responsibility to act where Member States cannot give an opinion".

Franziska Achterberg is EU food policy director at Greenpeace


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