Is EU's New GMO Law a Gift to Agribusiness?

A train passes by a corn field in northern Europe. (Photo: Around the world in unknown days/cc/flickr)

Is EU's New GMO Law a Gift to Agribusiness?

Environmental groups say that countries must use their new powers to pass GMO bans, or face greater threat from biotech giants

The European Parliament on Tuesday passed a law granting individual member states the power to permit or ban the planting of genetically modified crops, also known as GMOs, in their country. Though touted by some as another "nail in the coffin" for GMOs in Europe, other food advocates worry that the move further empowers agribusiness giants while failing to protect the rights of organic farmers.

Nine EU countries already have complete bans against the cultivation of Monsanto's MON810 maize, which is the only GMO crop currently authorized in Europe. The maize variety is banned in Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.

However, environmental groups warn that in countries where GMO crops are currently permitted, the new law has opened the door to the possibility of even more varieties of GMO crops being approved. Further, the law's shortcomings fail to protect farmers who practice organic or GMO-free farming.

"The rights of farmers who do not wish to grow GMO crops, particularly in England are under threat by this proposal," said Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the UK-based Soil Association, in a statement issued ahead of the vote. "Indeed, the entire organic sector, growing rapidly in Europe and which may double by 2020, is in danger--as are the rights of anyone who wants to buy GMO free foods."

And Bart Staes, food safety spokesperson for the Greens Party, which voted against the law, issued a statement warning that the new rule "risks finally opening the door for genetically modified organisms to be grown across Europe."

Staes continued: "Despite a majority of EU member states and citizens being consistently opposed to GMOs, the real purpose of this new scheme is to make it easier to wave through EU authorizations of GMO crops. Countries opposed to GMOs are given the carrot of being able to opt-out of these authorizations but the scheme approved today fails to give them a legally-watertight basis for doing so. This is a false solution."

Among the law's weaknesses, environmental groups say biotech companies are given the power to negotiate with individual countries who seek a ban in a particular territory or geographic area.

This provision was introduced following strong lobbying by the UK government. According to Greenpeace, this option appeals to GMO companies since it discourages broader national bans, which are likely to face legal challenges. And Friends of the Earth Europe says the law grants biotech companies "the first say in the decision-making process."

If a government does not first seek permission from the GMO manufacturer, it must enact a national ban on one of the following grounds: environmental policy objectives, town and country planning, land use, socio-economic impacts, avoidance of GMO crop presence in other products, agricultural policy objectives, or public policy. Notably, a country is not permitted to ban GMOs on the grounds of environmental concerns--an exclusion that Greenpeace warns could have "serious consequences."

"This new law is supposed to give countries some legal muscle to prevent GMO crops from being grown on their territory," said Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero. "But it has some major flaws: it grants biotech companies the power to negotiate with elected governments and excludes the strongest legal argument to ban GMO crop--evidence of environmental harm."

Despite these shortcomings, environmental groups are calling on EU member states to immediately flex their new powers and ban all GMO maize crops, the only form of genetically modified seeds currently in the pipeline.

"This is another nail in the coffin of genetically modified crops," said Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. "While not perfect, this new law allows governments to shut the door on biotech crops in Europe and shift farming in a more sustainable direction."

"The public has continually rejected GMO foods and increasingly supports greener farming and local food," Schimpft continued. "We call on national governments to use this new power to keep GMO crops out of their countries."

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