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

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

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

by
David Cronin

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)

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

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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