Tossing the hot potato: Member States, the European Commission and GMOs
The European Union has resisted the biotech industry’s attempts to flood Europe with GMOs. But if things had been left up to the EU legislators, it could have been a very different story.
In the 90s, EU laws on GMOs were dangerously inadequate. Despite this, 18 GMOs were authorized in the EU. The push for stricter legislation did not start as an initiative of the EU institutions. It was the public's outrage and refusal to be force-fed GMOs that made Member States agree to review the law and take a better look at health, environmental and sustainable farming issues.
Yet despite this, support for plant biotechnology discreetly continued over the years with billions of euro going into green [agricultural] biotech research, and a cosy relationship being developed with industry. EuropaBio, the main biotech lobby organisation, is one of the lead partners for the EU funded "Plants for the future: A European vision for plant biotechnology towards 2025".
According to an adviser in the Commission’s Research Directorate-General: "We in Europe are strongly committed to biotech, and have a clear strategy for its promotion and diffusion".
Lack of laws on genetic pollution and liability
1998 was a key year: EU countries decided to review GMO legislation and, taking a precautionary approach, agreed to a de facto moratorium on new GMO authorisations.
Seven years on, the EU has enlarged to 25 countries, and the legal framework for the import, use and cultivation of GMOs is still not finished. New laws do exist and are an improvement on the initial legislation, but genetic pollution and liability have yet to be decided (this is known as "coexistence" of GM and non GM crops) .
Despite these unresolved issues, the European Commission pressured Member States to agree to the end of the de facto moratorium in 2004, and placed 17 varieties of a genetically modified (GM) maize on what is called the common catalogue of seeds. This means that these seeds can now be bought and planted by farmers across the whole of the European Union and opens the door to GM crops being grown on a large scale across Europe, despite no coexistence measures being in place.
WTO dispute launched
One reason for the Commission pressure on Member States is the WTO GMO dispute which was filed by the US, Canada and Argentina in 2003. They are attacking the precautionary approach of EU countries as trade protectionism. The ruling, due in 2006, is expected to be long and complex without necessarily having a clear result, however it is possible that the EU will ultimately loose.
With this dispute rumbling in the background, the European Commission has continued to put pressure on Member States to accept GMOs. Most recently, in June 2005, it brought a proposal to the EU Environment Council for the lifting of the national bans on GMOs, which Member States refused .
A pro-biotech Commission
"This Commission has made biotechnology a high political priority. If used properly, it has the potential to become a driving force in our knowledge-based economy." - Gunter Verheugen, EU Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry
EU funding for plant biotechnology research started over 20 years ago, with the Biomolecular Engineering Programme (BEP) in 1982. BIOTECH II (1994-98), supported 42 projects in plant biotechnology, a European Plant Biotechnology Network,and a European research consortium. Framework Research Programmes 1-6 have consistently funded plant biotechnology with the amount of funding steadily increasing. Framework Research Programme 7, which is currently being finalized, lists food, agriculture and biotechnology as the second of its nine cooperation themes, with funding of 2455 million euro.
Furthermore, The Commission's new Industry Policy, which was launched earlier this month, includes a biotechnology policy and closer cooperation with industry. One of the policy’s sectoral priorities is "food and life science industries" .
A fragile moratorium on commercial growing
Within the Commission, a deal has been struck between the different directorates general (DGs) – environment, consumer protection, agriculture, industry, trade - to stop the clock on new applications for the commercial growing of GMOs but to push on with authorizations for import and use. However this "moratorium" on commercial growing is likely to last only until coexistence measures are in place.
The next year will be key in defining how the coexistence of GM and non GM crops will be dealt with at the EU level. It remains to be seen whether the Commission will focus on strict EU legislation to stop GMO pollution and to protect farmers' and consumer's right to choose, or whether it will continue to spin the economic aspects of green biotech through its industry and research policies. Renate Kuenast, Germany's consumer protection minister, reported in April 2005 that organic farming in Germany has created 150,000 jobs.
The Commission is frustrated at European resistance to plant biotechnology and even goes so far to publicly criticize the people it is supposed to serve. According to the Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, in a speech to biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio , "The controversial area of green biotech provides new solutions for sustainable agriculture, […] However, we all know that public attitudes as well as Member States' positions hamper the development in this area"
Member States happy for the Commission to do the dirty work
The bullying of the Commission should not however divert attention away from the role of Member States, who sit on the EU Council and are the ultimate decision makers in the European Union. All too often, they avoid taking a clear position on GMO authorizations and so decisions revert to the Commission. The Czech Republic, unlike most other new EU member States, has a poor voting record. Despite the majority of consumers not wanting GM food to be sold in the Czech Republic , the Government has abstained or voted to authorize GMOs in all votes since the ending of the de facto moratorium.
Member States must stand up to the Commission and the biotech industry, as they did in June 2005 when they defeated the Commission at the EU Environment Council. Otherwise, they will allow the Commission to use free trade and unproven economic arguments to force agricultural biotechnology on a European population opposed to GMOs, and which considers that EU decision-makers should pay as much attention to environmental considerations as to economic and social factors .
European GMO campaign coordinator
Friends of the Earth Europe
Background on EU legislation
The European Union (EU) first adopted legislation (Directive 90/220) for the authorization of GMOs in 1990. In 1997 a Regulation on Novel Foods was also adopted , based on the principle of substantial equivalence.
A new Directive , adopted in 2001, brought improvements, such as the safeguard clause (allowing countries to ban specific GMOs on health or environmental grounds), and public registers. However the directive failed to address certain key issues. Member States announced that the de facto moratorium would remain in place until such a time as adequate legislation was in place. Two new Regulations were adopted in 2003. One covered food and feed authorizations for both human food and animal feed, thus replacing the previous Novel Foods Regulation. The second dealt with traceability and labeling. The new Regulations, adopted in 2003, contained improvements on previous legislation but also had negative aspects such as an allowed threshold of 0.9% for adventitious or technically unavoidable GMOs. Furthermore, the issues of GMO contamination and liability remain unresolved (coexistence).
1.comment to AgBioView listserve (quoted in GMwatch, June 2004)
3.The safeguard clause (Article 16 in EU Directive 90/220 or Article 23 in 2001/18) allows countries to ban or restrict GM products that have already been authorised at an EU level. See also: http://www.foeeurope.org/press/2005/AB_24_June_vote.htm
5.Plant Genomic and Biotechnology for sustainable and competitive agriculture, European Commission http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/agriculture/pdf/plants%20genomics_0105.pdf
8.Spiegel International, Germany, April 18 2005
9.The Commission's new Biotech Policy, Biotechnology Policy Day High Level Roundtable, SPEECH/05/536, September 2005
10.See October 2005 edition of Friends of the Earth Biotech Mailout, http://www.foeeurope.org/GMOs/Index.htm
11.In April 2000, an opinion poll conducted for the Czech Television and Broadcasting companies showed 87% of men and 93% of women wished to have GM food visibly labelled. In November 2000, a survey by a Czech newspaper revealed that 99% of consumers did not want GM food to be sold in the Czech Republic.
12.Special Eurobarometer 217, April 2005 9 out of 10 people said that decision-makers should pay as much attention to environmental considerations as to economic and social factors.
13.Deliberate release of genetically modified organisms to the environment, 90/220/EEC.
14.Novel Food Regulation 258/97
15.Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms and repealing Council Directive 90/220/EEC
17.Novel Food Regulation 258/97
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