EU Ruling Allows Its Members to Decide on GM Crops


14 Jan 2015 --- The European government voted yesterday to allow individual member states to decide whether they grow or ban the use of genetically modified crops in their own nation.

The ruling, which has rumbled on for many years and caused intense controversy, maintains the need for stringent safety assessment by member states but provides for those states that want a more sustainable agricultural system.

Currently, there is just one crop, an insect-resistant maize by Monsanto, that is approved for use in the EU, and five member states, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia successfully grow it on home soil. There are seven further GM crops approved for use but not currently cultivated. The new ruling gives member states the authority to grow these, as well as others, not yet approved, as early as 2016.

As well as protection from insects, GM crops can increase the nutritional value of foodstuffs (nutritional enhancement), help them to withstand extremes in weather, provide drought and salt tolerant crops, increase shelf life of foods, adopt medicinal benefits and protect against disease.

Opposition to GM crops and the decision to allow countries to decide for themselves has been rife. Friends of the Earth is calling member states to immediately use their powers to ban all forms of GM crop cultivation.

Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, says: "This is another nail in the coffin of genetically modified crops. While not perfect, this new law allows governments to shut the door on biotech crops in Europe and shift farming in a more sustainable direction. The public has continually rejected GM foods and increasingly supports greener farming and local food. We call on national governments to use this new power to keep GM crops out of their countries."

The cultivation of GM crops in the European Union has been controversial for more than 15 years. Currently, nine EU countries have completely banned the cultivation of the MON810 maize – the only GM food crop authorised in Europe. These bans have been challenged by the European Commission, as well as the biotech industry, resulting in many national environment ministers supporting proposals to strengthen their legal rights to ban GM crops.

The EU has not approved a new GM crop for cultivation since 1998 and it is this that led world leader in plant seeds and agricultural solutions for farmers (GM crops) Monsanto to effectively pull out of Europe in 2013.

The company withdrew all its applications for EU approval of biotech products apparently due to delays in administration and instead said that it would invest in the import of GM products, rather than growth.

This latest move could encourage Monsanto back on to the European market.

Those who support the cultivation of GM crops see it as a way forward for GM foods. The UK’s Institute of Food Research sees genetic modification as one way that inexpensive, safe and nutritious foods can feed the world’s population. In a statement, it said: “The new legislation maintains the need for a stringent safety assessment from EFSA, but provides additional flexibility for individual nations to decide for themselves whether to grow GM crops commercially.

“It is now up to individual governments to use that choice, but we hope that decisions will be informed by the excellent, independent scientific advice available to them, to use the full range of options, including GM, to provide a more sustainable agricultural system in future.”

In October 2014, 21 of the 30 most eminent plant scientists in Europe implored the EU in an open letter to allow the safe cultivation of GM crops in EU member states, in order to ensure the efficient research into plants that may secure food security in Europe and beyond. They said: “Serious challenges are not adequately addressed, such as developing plants resilient to climate change, preventing loss of crop biodiversity, and creating an agriculture that avoids unsustainable demands for water, energy, fertilizers and pesticides. 

If plant scientists cannot apply their knowledge for the benefit of society, Europe will be unable to lead in global efforts to build a sustainable agricultural system and plant-based bio-economy. The most pressing global problems – how do deal with environmental change and secure food supply for all – arguably will only be solved with a massively increased worldwide investment in plant research.”

EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who was present during the debate ahead of the vote, welcomed the agreement, adding it allows freedom of choice.

“The agreement states that it will give member states the possibility to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs on their territory without affecting the EU risk assessment,” he said.

The text agreed is in line with President Juncker's commitment, as reflected in his Political Guidelines, to give democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice when it comes to important decisions concerning food and environment.

Genetically modified foods, often termed Frankenstein Foods, due to their unnatural adaptation, has its history firmly rooted in the US. In 1976 Monsanto launched its first herbicide, Roundup, which was swiftly followed by a US Supreme Court ruling that GM micro-organisms were patentable. In 1985, this was increased to GM plants, and field crop trials began.

The US has always encouraged Europe to be more active in the field of GM crops, but there has always been resistance to crops that are modified to make them somehow unnatural and their safety has long been questioned. Most EU countries have opposed the UK’s involvement in trying to introduce more GM crops into Europe. Indeed, just the UK and the Netherlands have been actively in support of GM crops, although this has been largely politically led.

The late 1990s were hotbed of activity in Europe for the development of GM crops and again, the US and UK faced opposition to the development of the market.

In 1998, EC Directive 98/44/EC on the 'Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions' was adopted, allowing gene patenting. The UK Treasury identified biotechnology as a key area for investment, but supermarket chain Iceland was the first UK supermarket to ban GM ingredients from its own brand products.

At this point the UK Government announced a voluntary agreement with industry not to grow GM crops commercially in the UK until a series of 'farm-scale trials' are carried out. It did introduce field trials of GM oilseed rape and maize which attracted widespread opposition Meanwhile Greece and France banned the cultivation of some GM crops approved by the EU.

In 1999, five EU Member States - Denmark, France, Greece Italy and Luxembourg - declared a de-facto moratorium on GM crops until the EU Commission introduced legislation for traceability and labelling of GM crops and foods. This move led the US to put pressure on the EU, via the World Trade Organisation, to break the moratorium. 

Major UK supermarkets and food manufacturers removed GM ingredients from foods and products from shelves, while UK farm-scale trials of three herbicide-tolerant GM crops (maize, oilseed rape and sugar beet) began. So it is clear that there has always been a battle between the US industry and UK government versus the UK public and the rest of Europe.

In the years that followed this hive of activity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the UK battled within (Scotland banned all use of and consumption of GM foods) and the EU battled, too. Following a World Trade Organisation ruling against the EU for allowing its member states to ban GM foods in 2005, the EU persisted and still allowed Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, France and Greece to maintain bans on GM varieties of oil seed rape and maize, imposed on public safety and environmental grounds. In the meantime, much activity surrounded the use of GM products for animal feed, EU approval for use of a potato starch in 2010 and many calls for research funding into the issues surrounding GM crops and sustainable agriculture.

Yesterday’s ruling has its roots in 2010, when it began the process of allowing its individual member states to ban GM crops themselves, but still allowing EU approval crops at an EU level.

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