GM crops in Europe: divide and conquer

By Manuel Ruiz Rico

EU Member States will have the power to accept or prohibit the cultivation of GM crops within their borders. What will the consequences be?

On 13 January, by a large majority, the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a regulation that had little impact but which is bound to change the whole picture of GM crops in Europe. The House gave the green light to Member States, empowering them individually to approve or ban the cultivation of GM crops in their national territories, rather than this being decided by the EU. Across the breadth of Europe, due to the broad social rejection of these crops, GM is virtually banned, as in fact only one crop of this type is planted: a Monsanto maize which was approved two decades ago in 1998. But everything could change from now on.

The widespread adoption of this new regulation in the European Parliament (480 votes in favour to 159 against and 58 abstentions) has come after five years of negotiations between the US and the EU to unclog the European approval mechanism which, in practical terms, had blocked GMs for 17 years. Once the new directive comes into force in the coming weeks, each of the 28 Member States will be able to decide for itself – which looks like being an opportunity for food biotechnology multinationals (particularly the world leader, Monsanto) to gradually encroach upon Europe with their crops. Divide and conquer.

One of the political groups which roundly rejected the vote in the European Parliament was the Greens. French MEP, José Bové, warned that day “in the short term, this change will allow multinationals like Monsanto to challenge national bans in the World Trade Organization, or, if TTIP is finally approved, in international arbitration courts”.

The veto in Europe – particularly by the French, Austrians and Germans – maintained a blockade against these crops across the entire European continent, however the Greens and the European environmental NGOs fear that from now on multinationals will gradually be able to introduce their crops, given that they now have to deal with States directly, instead of the EU as a whole. Thus, there are now many more windows open to get into the European countryside.

Apart from France and Germany, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Italy have also so far adopted safeguard measures prohibiting cultivation on their territory. But in contrast to these, governments such as the British and the Dutch have always declared that they would like to see more varieties of these crops on their land, while other, agriculturally very prominent, countries like Spain may be inclined towards the entry of GM crops. Certainly, the industry as a whole would be very interested in Spain’s extensive cultivatable surface area.

Up till now the approval process for a GM crop had to go through the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) based in Parma, Italy. If the crop in question received the agency approval, the process was then passed on to the European Commission, which had to give a definitive ruling within three months. Approval came only in the case of a qualified majority.

EASA has approved only eight GM crops – the last of these in 2005 – however the broad climate of social rejection in Europe has led the Commission to refuse authorization, especially due to the blockade from France and Germany.

This most recent GM crop approved by the EFSA in 2005 was the Amflora potato, developed by the German company, BASF. In 2010 the Commission gave approval for cultivation in Europe, however, only two years later the company announced it was pulling out of production due to strong social resistance to the product. All told, less than 300 hectares were actually grown between Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic put together.

MON810 Monsanto maize is therefore the only GM crop currently grown in the EU. According to European official figures, some 130,000 hectares of this maize is planted; 90% of which is in Spain (the rest in Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). Nevertheless, environmental groups like Friends of the Earth have questioned the accuracy of the source of the Spanish figures. According to the NGO, the real figure would be more like 70,000 hectares of MON810 maize in Spain.

Undoubtedly, all these figures could escalate from now on and opponents of GM crops expect that the multinationals in this sector (in particular, Monsanto) will strengthen their pressure (previously only focussed on one single point, although very powerfully: the EU) to gradually lift the veto, country by country.

“This new scheme involves re-nationalizing authorization for GM crops and greater power for multinationals, rather than a European regulatory framework to fight for the public interest right across the European continent,” explains Florent Marcellesi, EQUO spokesman in the European Parliament.

“Countries opposed to genetic modification are given the carrot of being able to pass it or not, however the regulation adopted by the Parliament fails to give them a legally reliable basis to do so. On the contrary, it strengthens the power of multinationals by opening the door for them to denounce countries that reject GMs before an arbitration court or the World Trade Organization”, adds Marcellesi.

In the opposite camp, the Belgian Liberal MEP, Frédérique Ries, promoter of this measure, said on the day it was passed that “Europe is a legal jungle and a European Council which is very reluctant to approve GMs, so this agreement will give more flexibility and freedom to Member States”, he argued.

Mute Schimpf, Head of Food at Friends of the Earth Europe, admits that the new regulation “provides a massive opportunity for national governments to hear the voice of its citizens and shut the door firmly on biotech crops”, but at the same time warns that this agreement could become “carte blanche for approving new GM crops”.

While new scenarios, the position of each Member State, and the fears generated by the decision taken by the EP become a reality – or not – one aspect is definitely clear, and that is the position of European citizens.

The last Eurobarometer on GMs shows definitively that only 18% of Europeans believe they are safe for future generations, as compared to 61% who think otherwise. In Spain, the rejection of GMs, although somewhat less than in Europe, according to this survey, is still very high: 53%.

From now on, therefore, the Member States, rather than looking to Brussels or EASA, will need to focus more than ever on public opinion in their respective countries when deciding whether or not to give the green light to GMs nationally. It is they that have the hot potato now.

Manuel Ruiz Rico works as a freelance journalist in Brussels.

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