Jul 6, 2011
EU Parliament votes to amend genetic engineering legislation
EU member states to be allowed to ban GM crops
On 5 July in Strasbourg, the European Parliament voted in its first reading in favour of a proposal that would make it possible for EU member states to ban the cultivation of GM crops. The European Commission had proposed retaining the central EU approval process with its scientific assessment of health and environmental risks, but allowing national cultivation bans on e.g. ethical, social or cultural grounds. By contrast, the application by the EU Environment Committee proposes allowing environmental protection issues, economic costs and scientific uncertainty as grounds for national cultivation bans.
“Our proposal offers states a solid legal basis,” said Corinne Lepage, a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and rapporteur for the Environment Committee.
The vote follows years of political deadlock in the dispute concerning the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. Until now, the cultivation of approved crops has been governed by the internal market provisions contained in Article 114 of the EU Treaty. According to these provisions, provided a product does not pose any scientifically proven risks, there should be no barriers to trade within the EU. The approval of GM plants has until now been based entirely on a scientific assessment of potential health and environmental risks conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and applies to all EU member states. Under current legislation, national cultivation bans can be issued only temporarily on the basis of new scientific findings that call into question the safety of the GMO products. Once the reasons for the ban have been assessed, the plant must either be banned throughout Europe or the national cultivation ban must be lifted. The national cultivation bans imposed by individual member states to date have all been regarded as scientifically unfounded by the European Commission. Nevertheless, the Council of Ministers has always voted against lifting national bans.
In summer 2010, the European Commission presented a first proposal amending the genetic engineering legislation, which was expanded in February 2011. It proposed leaving the scientific approval process unchanged, but allowing national cultivation bans on ethical, social and cultural grounds. However, genetic engineering opponents fear that cultivation bans issued on this basis will not provide sufficient legal certainty and that, in case of doubt, they could be cancelled by the world trade agreements in force.
The Environment Committee of the European Parliament, led by French lawyer Corinne Lepage, has now proposed that cultivation of GM crops should be governed by the environmental provisions of Article 192 of the EU Treaty instead of by the internal market provisions of Article 114. The deliberate release of a GMO into the environment is, she claims, fundamentally an environmental issue and should therefore be governed by the relevant article of the EU Treaty. This would in future enable member states to exceed EU minimum standards, for instance in terms of precautionary measures and the protection of native fauna and flora.
‘Scientific uncertainty’ and socio-economic grounds, such as impracticable coexistence measures or high additional costs for conventional farmers to achieve GM-free production, would also be valid grounds for national bans. In addition, the proposal calls for implementation of the conclusions adopted by the Council of Environment Ministers on December 2008 on reforming EFSA risk assessments. In particular, greater emphasis is to be placed on possible long-term effects of GM plants and potential impacts on non-target organisms.
The proposal was adopted by the European Parliament with 548 votes in favour, 84 against and 31 abstentions. Industry representatives see the Environment Committee’s proposals as an attack on the EU’s science-based approval system. For Christel Happach-Kasan, agriculture spokeswoman for Germany’s FDP party, the decision goes against the concept of a single European internal market. The parliament’s decision was welcomed by the chairman of Germany’s organic food industry association (BÖLW), Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, who said member states would at last have legal certainty.
Following the vote at first reading, the proposal passes to the Council of Ministers, which is divided on this issue. The European Parliament also has a say in the final decision. The relevant EU ministers and the European Parliament therefore have to find a common approach.