European parliament 'delivered the right message' on GMOs

Frédérique Ries believes 'it is the public interest which has won the day' with the EU’s new GMO directive.

By Frédérique Ries MEP

Frédérique Ries is a member of Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee

24 Feb 2015

It is always satisfying as a rapporteur to reach the end of the legislative procedure with agreement on a subject as divisive as that of genetically modified crops. Do we need to be reminded that around 80 per cent of citizens don’t want genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on their plates? Is it also necessary to emphasise that the current situation is far from being satisfactory, with some member states or regions finding themselves before the courts when they introduce a moratorium banning GMOs, even if it is a temporary one?

It is these good reasons which convinced 480 MEPs to support the agreement concluded with the European council in a vote on 13 January. The European parliament, by a very large majority, consequently delivered the right message for more freedom and legal certainty. 

"States have the last word on whether GMOs are permitted on their territory and that is a quite logical outcome"

This was a positive response, which echoes the recent accepting of responsibility by member states in the realisation that a solution had to be found after three years of institutional deadlock. 

The European parliament had long accepted its responsibilities in this regard. On 5 July 2011, in the first reading, parliament resolutely committed to the path of ambitious compromise.

The delegation from the parliament was successful on the essential points: the coexistence of GMO and non-GMO crops in border regions and the report requested from the European commission on the overview of compensation of conventional and bio-farmers; and the possibility for member states to invoke a series of criteria for prohibiting GMOs on their territory.

Serious grounds, other than those evaluated by the European food safety authority, and as varied as land management and planning, agricultural policy objectives, public order or even the impact on the environment, could be invoked as objections. 

That the dispute on the subject should continue is not really a surprise. However, some arguments put forward are surprising, such as the assertion by some political groups that it is seed companies that will have the last word in the authorisation procedure. 

This position is to deny the very nature of the procedure envisaged by this new legislation. It is in fact a negotiation procedure between a public and private authority, something which is quite common so as to avoid legal disputes.

"We have reached what is a new start for GMOs at European level, whether one is pro or anti-GMO"

It is equally important to stress that these negotiations with companies are in no way compulsory. In fact, the member states that want to reject GMO crops on their territory are free to bring another prohibition action at national level, which offers useful flexibility.

In other words, it is better to have two tricks up your sleeve than just one. Therefore, states have the last word on whether GMOs are permitted on their territory and that is a quite logical outcome, given the split between EU member states. On the economic front, it is urgent that Brussels should reflect on the creation of a European vegetable protein industry.

The European Union is, in fact, currently dependent on GMO imports, particularly in soya, with 20 million tonnes imported annually to feed its livestock population. The political challenge will be to lay the foundations for a rational debate on the fears raised by transgenic plants. 

Governments and green biotechnology industrialists will have to play their full part in this public debate, no longer confining it to a debate among experts, and committing to favouring innovation and bringing to the market GMO seeds that meet the needs of the farmers of both northern and southern Europe. That is undoubtedly the price to be paid to reconcile citizens with GMOs.

In conclusion, we have reached what is a new start for GMOs at European level, whether one is pro or anti-GMO, whether the state wants to grow them or not, it is the public interest which has won the day with the adoption of this new directive. 

The legislation is necessary but not sufficient because GMOs is such an enormous area. On the institutional front, the ball is clearly in the court of the new commission and president Jean-Claude Juncker, which this spring must announce its reform of the decision making process regarding GMO authorisations.


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