A march against Monsanto, which produces genetically modified crops, in Amsterdam in 2013.

A march against Monsanto, which produces genetically modified crops, in Amsterdam in 2013.

Floris Looijesteijn/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Leap forward for E.U. bill allowing national bans on GM crops

BRUSSELS—A long-stalled proposal to let individual countries in the European Union ban genetically modified (GM) crops took a major step forward last night, when representatives of the European Parliament and the bloc's member states agreed on a joint version. The bill is now very close to becoming law: It could come into force in the spring if the whole Parliament and member states formally endorse the proposal in the coming weeks.

Regulatory decisions regarding GM crops are now made at the European level; the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, assesses which ones are safe to put on the market. In the past decade, however, divisions between pro- and anti-GM European nations have hindered authorization decisions following EFSA's assessment.

Countries favorable to growing transgenic crops, such as Spain and the United Kingdom, want to unlock approval processes that have been delayed for years and allow more crops onto European fields; the governments of countries like Germany, France, and Austria want to be able to ban products on their territory—even if EFSA deems them safe—without being challenged in court.

The proposal gives the latter group more power to do what they want, whereas the former hopes that the new rules will ease authorization procedures. Frédérique Ries, who negotiated yesterday on behalf of the Parliament's committee in charge of environmental, public health, and food safety (ENVI) issues, says the deal is a “reasoned” solution that will allow the union to make a fresh start on this divisive matter.

“This is not about opposing science and politics … or about opposing reason and emotion,” says Ries's aide Patrice Audibert, but rather about unlocking an untenable situation and enabling governments to respond to strong public concerns.

The text will “give the democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice when it comes to important decisions concerning food and environment,” said Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European commissioner in charge of health and food safety, in a statement today.

But neither seed producers nor green groups are convinced. Biotech companies say the basic idea of the bill—an agreement to disagree among member states, at the expense of market harmony—is bad news for industry. “Rejecting modern technologies on non-scientific grounds sets a dangerous precedent for the internal market and sends a negative signal for innovative industries worldwide considering whether or not to invest and operate in Europe,” said Beat Späth, director for agricultural biotechnology at the industry association EuropaBio here, in a statement today.

Some scientists have echoed this sentiment. "We make a science-based risk assessment [of a product], and if it's safe we use it and if it's unsafe, we don't," Stefan Jansson, a professor of plant cell and molecular biology at Umeå University’s Plant Science Centre in Sweden, told ScienceInsider when ENVI approved its draft last month. By allowing other grounds for banning a product, "we undermine the scientific basis of the whole system," he added.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace EU, which had praised the draft approved by ENVI 3 weeks ago, says the text has lost substance in the final negotiations. The bill mentions maintaining local biodiversity and ecosystems as reasons that member states could invoke to ban the crops, but Marco Contiero, agriculture policy director at Greenpeace EU here, says the wording is not enough to withstand legal scrutiny if seed producers challenge a ban in court. “It's extremely difficult for a member state to [restrict the free movement of goods in the European Union] if it is not allowed to use public health and environmental motivations” to do so, Contiero says.

Member states will discuss this issue on 10 December; the text will also be put to a vote at the ENVI committee on 15 December and at the European Parliament plenary in January.

*Correction, 5 December, 12:17 p.m.: This story has been corrected to clarify EFSA's role in the regulatory process.

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