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In EU 'No' to Genetically Modified Food Could Conceal a 'Yes'

by David Cronin

BRUSSELS - Genetically modified (GM) foods will be introduced more quickly in Europe as a result of a new proposal, some Brussels officials fear.

Greenpeace noted that José Manuel Barroso, the Commission's president, had tried on four occasions to persuade EU governments to approve new GM foods since his appointment in 2004. (adapted photo from Flickr user Tim & Selena Middleton) Over the past 12 years, the European Union has effectively observed a moratorium on the cultivation of new GM crops because of widespread opposition to biotechnology among both the public and some of the EU's governments.

In a paper published Jul. 13, the Union's executive, the European Commission, superficially recognised that governments have the right to keep the territories they administer GM-free. But privately officials say that the aim of the initiative is to speed up the approval process for GM foods.

John Dalli, the EU's commissioner for food safety, said that the proposal would not allow individual governments to ban GM foods on health or environmental grounds as central EU bodies are tasked with assessing any risk that such crops may pose. But the governments would be allowed to cite moral or ethical considerations when imposing unilateral bans.

Lawyers advising the organisation Friends of the Earth have found that such grounds would be legally intangible and could easily be challenged by biotechnology companies in courts.

Dalli would not be drawn on that legal opinion, other than to say that it differed with counsel from the Commission's in-house lawyers. "I will let the lawyers fight it out," he told IPS. "I'm not a lawyer."

Asked to provide examples of the ethical questions that might prompt governments to ban GM foods, he said: "It could be the fact that a country is facing a massive aversion to a certain cultivation issue. But I am not going to prophesise what the reasons could be. We would like to leave that to the flexibilities we want to give (national governments)."

Green campaigners accused Dalli of playing deaf to calls to EU governments for a strengthened authorisation procedure. The campaigners argued that the new proposal is at stark variance with a demand made unanimously by the Union's environment ministers in 2008. At that time, the ministers urged that the European Food Safety Authority should assess the long-term impact of GM foods on the many ecosystems found throughout the EU and that the risks of GM crops should be studied by a body independent of the biotechnology industry.

Greenpeace noted that José Manuel Barroso, the Commission's president, had tried on four occasions to persuade EU governments to approve new GM foods since his appointment in 2004. "Now President Barroso is admitting defeat by presenting a compromise deal," said Greenpeace policy analyst Stefanie Hundsdorfer.

"In an attempt to muddle through with his pro-GM agenda, he is offering countries national bans if they turn a blind eye to the health and safety concerns they have about new crops during the EU authorisation process. But individual bans cannot replace a scientifically sound EU-level safety procedure."

The new proposal follows an effort made by the Commission earlier this year to revive the approval process. In March the Commission chose a potato known as Amflora as the first new GM crop to be cultivated in the EU in well over a decade. Despite that decision, three EU governments -- Hungary, Austria and Luxembourg -- announced that they had forbidden the potato.

Three other states -- France, Germany and Greece -- have joined Hungary, Austria and Luxembourg in also prohibiting the cultivation of Mon-810, a maize patented by the world's leading biotech firm Monsanto. And Poland has legislation on its statute books proscribing the sale of GM seeds.

In the short-term, the Commission is hoping that around 10 new GM crops will be planted in Europe. Four of them -- all varieties of maize -- have been authorised by the EFSA, in some cases for more than five years.

Biotechnology firms claimed they were unhappy with the new proposal. Carel de Marchie Sarvaas, a representative of the trade association EuropaBio, said the paper appeared to give governments "carte blanche to ban safe and approved GM crops in any country or region regardless of the needs or wishes of their farmers."

EuropaBio has, however, been having a series of meetings with the Commission on how to end the logjam in the approvals process. The meetings, which also involve officials from EFSA in Parma, Italy, were initiated after EuropaBio wrote to Barroso in 2006, warning that the antipathy of some EU governments to GM foods could "greatly diminish" the industry's chances of proving its theory that such foods are socially beneficial.

Friends of the Earth appealed to EU governments to reject the new proposal. It says that the proposal will not prevent organic and other non-GM crops from being "contaminated". Traces of GM crops can easily be carried by the wind into fields that had until then been GM-free, according to environmentalists.

"While the European Commission is seemingly offering countries the right to implement national bans, in reality the proposal aims to do the opposite: opening Europe's fields to GM crops," said Mute Schimpf from Friends of the Earth. "The Commission continues to fail to protect Europe's food and feed from contamination by GM crops." 

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