GM crops opt-out will make Europe a science museum

This week’s European Parliament vote to allow member states to ban cultivation of approved GM crops on environmental grounds undermines science-based decision-making system at an EU level, says Carel du Marchie Sarvaas of EuropaBio

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On Tuesday the European Parliament voted by the comfortable majority 548 to 84, (with 31 abstentions), to give member states the right to ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops on environmental grounds. Such a move would undermine science-based policy making in Europe, according to the industry group EuropaBio.

The result will be to allow member states to opt-out of a product approval system simply because of political preference – without any scientific reasoning, says Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, EuropaBio’s Director of Green Biotechnology. “The debate reveals very clearly how politicised science has become in European policy making,” he says.

Not only will farmers be denied the choice to plant GM crops, but there is there is a risk this will create a precedent that would allow other sectors and other countries to use non-scientific reasons to ban products, despite a positive safety assessment. It also threatens to undermine the single market, by allowing a proliferation of different national or regional restrictions and conditions.

Science-based assessment

Policymaking should be based on the scientific evidence of the safety of GM crops says EuropaBio, pointing out that the very strict EU authorisation process guarantees that GM crops are approved only if their safety is demonstrated in a thorough science-based assessment.

There have been almost 20 years of such safety assessments. Given this, and the world-wide consumption of more than two trillion meals with GM ingredients, without the occurrence of a single substantiated ill-effect, it is reasonable to say this technology has been demonstrated to be safe, EuropaBio claims.

EuropaBio recognises that Europe needs some route around the long-running impasse over GM crops, and supports the European Commission’s proposal, set out on 13 July 2010, to devolve decisions on their planting to member states. Under the proposal, which came before the European Parliament for a first reading this week, national governments would make that decision once a product has received EU-level safety and environmental approval.

A member state could then ban a GM crop, but only on ethical, moral or socio-economic grounds.

However, the amendment approved by the European Parliament on Tuesday would allow a GM crop to be banned on environmental grounds, regardless of having passed EU-level safety assessments.

Justifying a ban

“This vote is a clear signal from the Parliament to the Council and the Commission: the EU authorisation system should be maintained but it should be acknowledged that some agricultural and environmental effects […….] can be cited by member states to justify a ban or restriction on GM cultivation,” said Corinne Lepage the French MEP who is the rapporteur steering the proposal through the European Parliament.

But it is clear that this would undermine science-based EU-level assessments.

Commenting in the amendment, du Marchie Sarvaas said, “It is disappointing to see how such political voting is making Europe into a science museum rather than an economic motor driven by innovation, particularly at a time when the whole world needs to meet the challenge of feeding a growing global population.”

At present, six countries have explicit bans on planting GM crops, but their legal grounds for doing this are dubious. Making national concerns about environmental impacts the justification for an opt-out  – even if these are at odds with the EU-level scientific assessment - would provide a defence in the event of a World Trade Organization challenge to a ban.

As du Marchie Sarvaas’ comments highlights, there are wider issues at stake here, but on the specific question of GM crops, EuropaBio argues that by delaying cultivation approvals, Europe continues to miss out on the economic benefits these products present. A recent study (The Impact of the EU regulatory constraint of transgenic crops on farm income) found that EU farmers are foregoing an additional €440 - €930 million each year by not being able to choose and plant currently available GM crops.

“As they contemplate the future challenges of globalisation, climate change, food insecurity and shortages of natural resources, many decision-makers continue to deny farmers the ability to use cutting edge technologies, already available to their counterparts outside the EU, to help them to deal with these same challenges,” says du Marchie Sarvaas.

The proposal to nationalise decisions on GM crops is yet to be considered by ministers in the European Council.

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is Director, Green Biotechnology Europe at the pan-European biotechnology industry body EuropaBio

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Related subjects: European Commission, European Parliament, European Union, GM crops