The EU must learn from the many 'delays and false starts' surrounding its legislation on GMOs, writes Frédérique Ries.
Three years; that's how long the European parliament has been waiting for the member states since its ambitious vote on future legislation regarding the restriction or banning of producing genetically modified organism (GMO) crops in their territories.
This wait is due to the extreme sensitivity of this file, with its mixture of considerations: scientific, ethical, commercial, agricultural, environmental and health-based, but also, and above all, with respect to the citizens themselves. Indeed, if there is one issue that has stirred up public opinion in the different member states during the last decade, it is surely GMOs. This has been accompanied by growing disapproval regarding risks from the presence of GMOs in human food. We should perhaps recall that in the Eurobarometer report on food technology from December 2010, "only 21 per cent of Europeans agree with the statement that 'GMO food is safe for future generations' (against 58 per cent who disagree)."
Presently there is only MON810 maize – resistant to two types of destructive insects – which has been permitted for cultivation in Europe since 1998. In addition to this, there are seven requests for GMOs awaiting authorisation.
It is in this particular context that parliament's environment, public health and food safety (ENVI) committee is due to give its opinion on my draft report on 5 November. In practice, this is a matter of modifying the directive regarding the deliberate release of GMOs, but also has consequences with respect to the regulation concerning products intended as human or animal food containing GMOs. That is to say, these are the two legislative texts referred to by companies that wish to make a request for placing GMO seeds onto the European market. Such revision of the legislation would deal exclusively with the possibility of banning the growing of GMO crops in open fields for the purposes of harvesting or research, and would therefore not deal with imports.
"We should perhaps recall that in the Eurobarometer report on food technology from December 2010, 'only 21 per cent of Europeans agree with the statement that 'GMO food is safe for future generations'"
The debates in ENVI contain hints of a convergence of views between MEPs, and of a probable adoption of an amended report for the second reading. This would depend on three key arguments; first, a firm undertaking on the avoidance of cross-contamination between GMO and non-GMO crops, particularly in border areas. Second is a strengthening in legislative security for member states which have an open list of reasons that could be invoked as justification for a ban, such as environmental criteria, reasons related to socioeconomic impacts or connected with agricultural policy. And finally, there must be a commitment to strengthening the methods of risk evaluation in accordance with the conclusions of the 2008 environment council.
The question of banning the cultivation of GMO crops is only the tip of the iceberg, seeing that the EU must above all learn lessons from the 10 years of delays and false starts in handling the GMO file. There is no doubt that this will set up the first stage in a welcomed 'liberation' of this file at the European level. In parallel, it will enable the legitimisation of a centralised authorisation procedure under the guidance of the commission. As such, the areas of competence will be better defined between the EU and the member states. The European food safety authority will evaluate the risks and national authorities will be responsible for managing them.
Further stages will follow, such as the necessary simplification of the authorisation procedure at a community level, so that the view of the majority of countries, in number and in demographic weight, will prevail over the minority. That is precisely the opposite of what happened in February 2014 with the vote on the authorisation of the genetically modified maize TC1507, a variety that is resistant to the European corn borer and tolerant to glyphosate, a powerful herbicide. In this particular case, a minority of five member states in favour of its cultivation – Spain, United Kingdom, Estonia, Finland and Sweden – was sufficient to counter the resistance from 19 other governments fiercely opposed to its authorisation.
"In future, the EU would be well advised to launch public debates on sensitive issues in advance, in order to avoid any head-on collision between public opinion and genetic innovations"
After that, consideration will be given to setting up a European sector for vegetable proteins, for which the EU is currently dependent on GMO imports, principally for soya, at a rate of 20 million tonnes per year brought in as cattle food. It is this global vision that the EU must keep in mind when legislating on such sensitive issues. The same applies more generally to all dossiers where science and ethics meet, such as biotechnology, new foodstuffs or particularly nanotechnology. In future, the EU would be well advised to launch public debates on sensitive issues in advance, in order to avoid any head-on collision between public opinion and genetic innovations.
This would appear to be the way chosen by commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker, who on a number of occasions has made a firm commitment to modifying the decision- making process for GMOs within the next six months. This is an important position, and is one that I share with the Italian presidency, which has made its views well known on the matter. These statements must be interpreted as a clear undertaking by the new EU executive to bring its policies ever closer to Europe's citizens. It is now up to the commission not to disappoint them and to live up to their promises.