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New genetically modified crops proposal could lead to planting in Europe as of next year

A proposal to allow member states to ban specific genetically modified crops from their territories looks set to have a giant biotech-industry-friendly loophole, writes Nina Holland.

 On Wednesday 28 May, European Union countries seemed close to an agreement on the text of the proposal. And paradoxically, this text is turning out to be rather Monsanto-friendly. A final decision could be taken at the Environment Council on 12 June. So how did we get from a national ban proposal to an industry-friendly opt-out?

The awkward EU vote on Pioneer’s GM maize last February created the feeling of urgency that something needed to change in the way GM crops are approved. While nineteen countries voted against, and only five in favour, the European Commission maintained its intention to give Pioneer GM maize the go-ahead. That does not look good.

The proposal to hand back some decision powers to member states regarding GMO approvals has been discussed on and off for some time now. In July 2011 the European Parliament voted on this text that could have given powers to national governments to ban the cultivation of GM crops. Of course initially the biotech firms were very opposed to the idea of national bans. But the current text clearly has the biotech lobby’s fingerprints all over it. Now they see it as an opportunity to break the legal and political stalemate and finally get their GM crops growing in Europe’s fields, despite their unpopularity.

As it stands, the proposed text by the Greek Presidency states that for a member state to ban a GMO, they would first have to ask the GM company itself not to market it in their territory. If the company does not agree, the member state’s second option is to give certain policy arguments, from a limited set of possibilities.[1] This is the second major weakness in this proposal: these types of arguments bring great legal uncertainty and may simply not hold up when challenged in court.

Documents obtained by way of Freedom of Information acts by UK group GeneWatch show how Brussels biotech lobby group EuropaBio has been advocating precisely this approach for two years. One three-page document entitled, ‘A new strategy on GM issues’ probably dates back to 2012. The paper concludes that a new approach is needed to break the standstill on GM crops in Europe. This includes an “amended nationalisation proposal” putting as a condition that member states can only apply for a national ban if they have first asked the company to refrain from marketing the GM crop in their country, and if the company has refused.

Another condition posed by EuropaBio is that a contamination threshold is agreed by member states to allow the presence of unauthorised GMOs in seeds (this is already the case for animal feed, but not yet for food and seeds). And last but not least, that EU member states should no longer vote against a GM crop application at a European level if they can use one of these two options for a national ban. What follows is a detailed list of items needed to get support from the German, UK and French governments, and the European Commission. It is noted in the EuropaBio document that “These changes appear acceptable to many member states [MS]. Even if some MS object, the votes gained with UK and German support compensate for any lost votes.”

The set of documents released to GeneWatch also indicate a close relationship between lobby groups EuropaBio and the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), and the GM team in the UK Ministry of Environment DEFRA. The Agricultural Biotechnology Council is a UK based lobby group whose membership only comprises the six largest agrochemical multinationals: BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Pioneer (DuPont) and Syngenta. ABC itself is a member of EuropaBio. Genewatch’ assessment of the many emails released show a great extent of receptiveness of people inside the UK government to industry influence on issues like science and research funding, GM regulation, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

It is under the leadership of Owen Paterson who was was appointed Secretary of State for the Environment in 2012 and was praised in one EuropaBio letter for his “vocal leadership” on GM issues, that the UK Government changed its position on the national opt out from being opposed to being in favour. Dr Helen Wallace of Genewatch concludes that the UK Government has been working closely with the GM industry “to get a Monsanto-friendly version of the opt-out”. The aim of both actors is to break the deadlock in decisions on GM approvals for cultivation.

If this proposal is approved at the June Council meeting, RoundupReady GM crops, which are in the pipeline for approval, could be planted in different parts of Europe as of next year. This would be very bad news for a transition to a sustainable agriculture in Europe. At the very least those nineteen countries that voted against Pioneer’s GM maize should seriously rethink any support for this proposal. And indeed embark on a more fundamental rethink on what ways will lead us to an environmentally sound and socially fair agriculture.

Nina Holland is a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory

[1]          Arguments can relate to “environmental or agricultural policy objectives distinct from the elements those concretely assessed according to Directive 2001/18/EC and Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003; town and country planning; land use; socioeconomic impacts; or avoidance of GMO presence in other products without prejudice to Article 26a.”

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