Brussels Expands Grounds for Potential GM Crop Bans
The European Parliament’s environment committee has voted to include “general environmental policy objectives” onto a list of grounds for legal justification for member states to independently outlaw the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. The 12 April vote amended a European Commission draft policy proposal that, if approved, would grant member states the right to ban GM crop cultivation within their borders if such bans are based on certain criteria.
Last February, the European Commission (EC) approved a list of possible grounds based on the premise that such a ban would help “maintain public order.” According to the initial draft, bans could be enacted in the face of popular opposition or on grounds of public morality, such as religious or philosophical concerns (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 7 February 2011).
The public order and environmental policies additions are designed to address concerns that biotechnology policies enacted independently by European member states would leave those countries open to legal challenges at the WTO.
According to the environment Members of European Parliament (MEPs), the addition of environmental grounds to the proposal is expected to give member states better legal protection to such challenges.
“Our proposal offers states a solid, legal basis,” said the French MEP Corinne Lepage, who drafted the amendment.
According to the draft proposal, as long as all restrictions are justified, proportionate, and non-discriminatory, they would be permitted within the EU. But there are currently no plans to add the list to the GM cultivation proposals currently under consideration which some experts say calls into question the strength of any legislation derived from the draft.
GM puzzle a difficult one for Brussels
Last year, the Commission proposed that the decision-making process on GM crop cultivation be partially decentralised in response to a deadlock in the crop approval process (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 23 July 2010). Only two genetically modified seeds have been approved for cultivation in Europe: a strain of maize produced by biotech giant Monsanto and a type of starch potato from Amflora, which was approved in March 2010, but only for industrial uses (see Bridges Trade BioRes and 19 March 2010).
Brussels has also been struggling with how to deal with several member states that had defied the centralised policy on the issue and unilaterally implemented GM crop bans. Member states Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland and Luxembourg have all issued bans on the cultivation of GM seeds, citing health and environmental concerns under a safeguard clause contained in the 2001 directive (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 3 April 2009). Other countries, however - including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom - appear more open to allowing their farmers to grow the altered crops.
Some member states and environmentalists have raised concerns over the push toward more liberal GM policies, arguing that it could open the floodgates for new genetically modified crops in the EU. Others, such as Italy and Spain, have said that the proposal undermines the spirit of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The Council of the European Union - a body of twenty-seven national ministers - also challenged the Commission’s proposal last November (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 22 November 2010).
In another controversial move, the EC has recently adopted a measure that allows trace amounts - up to 0.1 percent of unapproved GM crops - to be imported into the EU for animal feed. Some countries have called for the Commission to allow the unapproved GM crops to be permitted for human consumption as well, pointing out that it would be nearly impossible to distinguish the world’s crop supplies between food and feed.
Reducing or igniting internal tensions?
For its part, the Commission says its proposed policy on GM crops aims to reduce tensions surrounding the lack of compliance on GM issues by establishing clear parameters for countries’ national policies on biotech cultivation that would lessen uncertainty for farmers and agri-business across Europe.
However, opposition continues to mount against the proposal, with the UK most recently joining the faction spearheaded by France, Germany and Spain (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 21 March 2011). The apprehensions stem from concern arising from the legal uncertainties internal fragmentation of biotechnology policy could create for the European agriculture industry and the unexpected trade barriers that could result.
In her statement at the EU environment ministers’ meeting on 17 March, Caroline Spelman - Britain’s farm minister - also cautioned that GM bans under the proposal would be in direct violation of the EU’s WTO commitments.
The MEP and European green groups in favour of the position maintain that the decentralisation proposal is necessary to help avert the negative consequences that GM contamination could have on more traditional forms of agriculture.
“Environmental impacts are a major danger of GM crops,” said Stefanie Hundsdorfer, Greenpeace EU’s agricultural policy advisor. “Including these into law will help governments ban them from Europe’s fields. Without these grounds, national bans would be in danger of being overturned by biotech companies in court.”
ICTSD reporting; “MEPs back national freedom to ban GM crops,” EURACTIV, 13 April 2011; “Britain adds voice to criticism of EU GM crop plans”, REUTERS, 14 March 2011; “EU moves to allow traces of GMO in feed” ASSOCIATED PRESS 26 February 2011; “EU draft: States can ban GM crops for public order,” REUTERS, 4 February 2011.
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