Europe Still Resisting GMOs

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

The authorisation of Bt 11 sweet maize for food use in May 2004 marked the end of Europe’s de facto moratorium on GM approvals. However, there is by no means consensus on GMOs in Europe.

Lim Li Ching explains how approvals can still occur despite objections*

On 29 November 2004, an EU regulatory committee once again failed to reach a qualified majority to support a proposal by the European Commission for the import of Monsanto’s GM maize (MON863 and MON863 x MON810 hybrids). The Scientific Panel on GMOs of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had earlier this year pronounced MON863 “safe”. Nonetheless, the maize has been controversial, as concerns have been raised regarding the results of a feeding study that showed suspected adverse effects in the blood and kidneys of rats fed the GM maize. These effects were unobserved in rats fed conventional maize.

Earlier, on 20 November, the committee postponed a formal vote on Monsanto’s application, to seek clarification and more information. At the Commission’s request, EFSA’s GMO Panel reviewed an evaluation report on MON863 that was submitted by Germany, as well as retrospectively evaluated some of the scientific data that were causing concern. On 20 October, the GMO panel issued a statement saying, “there is no evidence… that changes the conclusions already reached by the GMO Panel earlier this year”. Despite the reassurances, only eight countries (133 votes) voted in favour of approving MON 863, while 12 countries (123 votes) voted against and five abstained (65 votes). The Council of Environment Ministers must now decide on the proposal to approve MON863, within three months.

This is just the latest in a string of GM applications to meet strong resistance from European countries. It was the ninth failed attempt by the Commission to win support for a GMO or GM product, as health and environmental concerns over these GMOs have been raised by scientists and regulators from various countries.

Under current EU law, when an application is made by a company to market a GMO or GM product in a Member State, and there is no consensus among other Member States, then the Commission steps in. It seeks advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which provides the various scientific panels that carry out environmental risk and human and animal health assessment.

Lack of scientific consensus has sometimes occurred at this stage. If EFSA supports an application, the Commission drafts and adopts a proposal to approve the GMO or GM product concerned.

This is then transmitted to the appropriate regulatory committee, depending on the intended use of the GMO or GM product concerned. The committees comprise representatives of the 25 Member States. Decisions are made by a ‘qualified majority’ vote. The votes are weighted among the Member States according to their size. A certain percentage of the weighted votes (232 out of 321 votes) are required to reach qualified majority.

If the regulatory committee cannot reach a qualified majority to adopt or reject a Commission proposal, the next decision level is the Council of Ministers (comprising of environment or agriculture ministers from the 25 Member States, depending on the intended use of the GMO or GMO product). A qualified majority is needed to either approve or reject the proposal.

However, in the absence of a qualified majority and according to the so-called ‘comitology’ procedure, the Commission can take the final decision. This means that ‘approval’ of a GMO in the EU can occur despite continuing objections by a number of Member States. In addition, such ‘approval’ goes against the wishes of most European citizens, who overwhelmingly reject GMOs.

The following is a list of the failures to reach qualified majority at either the regulatory committee or Council stages since December 2003:

  • 8 December 2003: Vote on Bt 11 sweet maize for food use at the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health. Result: no qualified majority. 6 countries in favour; 6 against; 3 abstentions.
  • 18 February 2004: Vote on NK 603 maize for import and use in feed and industrial processing at the Standing Committee of Release of GMOs into the Environment. Result: no qualified majority. 9 in favour; 5 against; 1 abstention.
  • 26 April 2004: Vote on Bt 11 sweet maize for food at the Council of Agriculture Ministers. Result: no qualified majority 6 in favour; 6 against; 3 abstentions. The decision thus reverted to the Commission, which approved Bt 11 sweet maize for food use on 19 May 2004, ending the EU’s de facto moratorium. However, Syngenta later said the product would not be commercialised in Europe, for now, due to strong consumer resistance.
  • 30 April 2004: Vote on NK 603 maize for food use at the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health. Result: no qualified majority. 8 in favour; 5 against; 2 abstentions.
  • 16 June 2004: Vote on GT 73 oilseed rape for import and use in feed and industrial processing at the Standing Committee of Release of GMOs into the Environment. Result: no qualified majority. 9 in favour; 12 against; 4 abstentions. GT 73 will go to the Council of Environment Ministers for a vote.
  • 28 June 2004: Indicative vote on NK 603 maize for import and use in feed and industrial processing at the Council of Environment Ministers. Result: no qualified majority. 11 in favour; 9 against; 3 abstentions. The decision thus reverted to the Commission, which on 19 July 2004 approved NK 603 for import and processing for use in animal feed or for industrial purposes. However, imports for this use can only commence once the equivalent approval has also been granted for food use.
  • 19 July 2004: No official vote, so no decision at the Council of Agriculture Ministers on NK 603 maize for food use. This was after it became clear that no qualified majority could be reached, as Member States had not changed their positions from when the Standing Committee met on 30 April. The proposal reverted to the Commission on 13 October 2004, which approved NK 603 for food use on 26 October; this means that imports of NK 603 are now allowed into Europe.
  • 20 September 2004: Formal vote on MON863 and MON863 x MON810 hybrids postponed, to seek clarification and more information, after concerns were raised.

    In other developments, on 8 September 2004, the Commission approved the inscription of 17 varieties derived from MON 810 maize in the Common EU Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species. MON 810 has been authorised in the EU since 1998, under previous weaker legislation, but this is the first time GM varieties have been added to the Common Catalogue.

    The move allows farmers to commercially grow the GM varieties across the whole of Europe. Before this decision, the 17 varieties seeds only had national authorisations - 6 are on the national catalogue in France, 11 in Spain – so only farmers in those countries were able to buy and plant the seeds. There is an on-going Europe-wide campaign to “Stop the Crop”, being co-ordinated by the Friends of the Earth Europe (see www.foeeurope.org/GMOs/gmofree/). And opposition is not just coming from NGOs; fifteen of the 25 EU member states have also criticised the Commission’s decision. In addition, Poland’s environment and agriculture ministries want to have continued national restrictions on the cultivation of MON 810.

    The Commission however was unable to reach consensus on a proposal to set maximum levels of GMO contamination in seeds. A draft decision was due to be adopted by Commissioners, proposing a 0.3% threshold in maize and oilseed rape, before triggering labelling. Critics, including farmers, trade unions, environmental groups, and seed producers, deem this threshold as too high and have campaigned for it to be set at 0.1%, the current lowest technically feasible level. Moreover, Austria has had a workable and feasible seed purity law since 2002. It adopted a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, prohibiting contamination of seeds with GM varieties above the detection level of 0.1%.

    The decision on seed thresholds was postponed pending more information on the economic impact of the proposed threshold. The issue will now come before the newly appointed Commission. The new agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, had campaigned for a 0.1% threshold in her native Denmark, and has told the European Parliament that the seed thresholds should be set at the lowest possible level.

    The national bans on GMOs held by a number of European countries are currently being challenged. The European Commission also asked countries to vote on 29th November at the regulatory committee meeting, on whether each country that has a national ban should lift its embargo or not. Such bans are the subject of the complaints against the EU brought to the WTO by the US, Canada and Argentina, with those countries claiming that they are trade barriers. However, the national bans were not overturned and the proposals to lift the bans will now be forwarded to the Council of Environment Ministers. It is clear that the GM fight will continue in Europe. But resistance remains strong at all levels.

     

    Sources

    1. www.europa.eu.int
    2. “European Ministers Split on Monsanto’s GM Maize NK 603,” Third World Network Biosafety Information Service, 30 June 2004.
    3. “Monsanto GM Maize Not Authorised by EU Commission,” Friends of the Earth Press Release, 28 June 2004.
    4. “Civil Society Urges EU Commission to Reject GM Seed Contamination,” Press Release from Save Our Seeds, Kampffmeyer Mühlen Hameln, EFFAT, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Europe, EEB, IFOAM EU, EURO COOP, Confederazione nazionale COLDIRETTI, Coordination Paysanne Européenne CPE, Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos of Spain, 8 September 2004.
    5. “Inscription of MON 810 GM Maize Varieties in the Common EU Catalogue of Varieties,” European Commission Press Release IP/04/1083, 8 September 2004.
    6. “EU Urged to Exercise Caution on GM crops,” Environment Daily 1750, 19 October 2004.
    7. “EU Commission Drops Decision on GMO Seed Labels,” Reuters, 8 September 2004, http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L08560446.htm
    8. “Austria’s No GE Seed Contamination Regulation Working Well,” Third World Network Biosafety Information Service, 19 June 2003.
    9. “Safety Fears and Secrecy: Greenpeace Challenges New GMO Application,” Greenpeace, 17 September 2004
    10. “Europe Halts Monsanto Maize,” Friends of the Earth Europe, 20 September 2004.
    11. “Don’t Let Bush and the WTO Win: Help Stop the European Commission From Backing Down on GM foods,” Friends of the Earth Europe, October 2004.
    12. “EU Experts Fail to Authorise New Biotech Maize,” by Jeremy Smith, Reuters, 30 November 2004.

    * Lim Li Ching, Senior Fellow at The Oakland Institute, works with the biosafety programme at Third World Network (TWN), an international NGO based in Malaysia. TWN is involved in efforts to bring about a greater articulation of the needs and rights of peoples in developing countries; a fair distribution of world resources; and forms of development which are ecologically sustainable and fulfill human needs.  

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