On the eve of the European Union's deadline for member states and territories to declare their stance on allowing or banning genetically modified (GM or GMO) crops, more than half of EU countries are asking to opt out—a total of 15 out of 28 members, according to the latest count by the European Commission.
The governments, including those of Germany and Scotland, are utilizing new EU rules which allow member states to send territorial exclusion requests to agrochemical manufacturers like Dow, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer—even if their crops snag wider EU approval.
As of October 2, the list of members opting out also includes Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Belgium's Wallonia region, and Wales and Northern Ireland in the UK.
By invoking those rights, Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said, the majority of EU governments are "rejecting the Commission's drive for GM crop approvals."
"The only way to restore trust in the EU system now is for the Commission to hit the pause button on GM crop approvals and to urgently reform safety testing and the approval system," Achterberg said.
In European Parliament, Green food safety spokesperson Bart Staes said, "The resolve of these EU member states to ban GMO cultivation on their territory is laudable. It confirms what we already know: that a clear majority in Europe is opposed to genetically-modified crops. It is clearly regrettable that the Commission and some member states want to push ahead with GMO cultivation in spite of the myriad of problems this poses, also cross border."
Currently, only one GMO crop is cleared for cultivation in Europe—Monsanto's MON810 maize—but seven more varieties are under consideration by the Commission. The EU rules allow member states to ban all eight.
The opt-outs only cover the cultivation of GMO crops, rather than importing of GMO products. The EU has approved 70 GMO products, including human food, animal feed, and cut flowers.
Negotiations for a strategy that would allow member states to ban GMO imports in their border-free territories are still under way. If such a plan is approved by the European Parliament's environmental committee at its meeting next month, it could bring even more substantial changes.
The widespread opposition to GMOs has blocked the Commission from authorizing new strands of crops for years, even as a smaller number of countries, such as Spain and England, push for their approval. The opt-outs emerged as a compromise to that division after years of negotiations between member states.
Unsurprisingly, agrochemical companies opposed the deal and expressed their disappointment with the swift and far-reaching opt-outs. Biotechnology lobbyist group Europabio said the rules send a "negative signal for all innovative industries considering investing in Europe."
As Common Dreams has previously reported, the new laws have gotten a mixed reception from food safety advocates who say the EU may in fact be empowering agribusiness companies while failing to protect organic farmers:
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.
[....] 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."
Nonetheless, green groups called on EU members to take the options available to them and ban GMO crops.
Now, Staes said, it is "imperative that the Commission and the minority of pro-GMO governments both respect and actively support all those EU governments that have opted to ban GMO cultivation. There are serious concerns that the legal framework for these opt-outs, under the EU rules finalised earlier this year, is not watertight. This could leave governments subject to challenges by biotech corporations. Those member states opting-out of GMO authorisations must therefore have the full support of the Commission and other EU governments.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, in July 2014 said that member states should not be forced to accept GMO crops if the majority of governments disapprove of them.
As of their October 3 deadline, it seems that is officially the case.