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Target. Maize 1507 was developed to fight off the European corn borer.

Target. Maize 1507 was developed to fight off the European corn borer.

Wikimedia Commons/Keith Weller

After 12-Year Limbo, New GM Maize May Hit Europe's Fields

BRUSSELS—In 2001, the agriculture giant now called DuPont Pioneer asked for approval to grow a new genetically modified (GM) maize variety in the European Union's fields. Twelve years later, the company still doesn't have an answer. Sharp divisions within the European Union, leading to a paralyzing indecisiveness, have kept the crop in limbo.

Now, the European Commission has finally made a choice. Yesterday, it proposed to allow cultivation of maize 1507, as the variety is known. It would be only the third GM crop allowed for cultivation in the European Union, where consumers and many national governments have strong reservations about genetically engineered food.

The commission also pressed member states to avoid these lengthy deadlocks in the future by reconsidering a 3-year-old proposal to reform the union's GM authorization procedures. As far as the commission is concerned, individual member states could decide to restrict a given crop on their territory in the future—even if the European Union's food safety watchdog says there is no reason to block them.

Maize 1507 is engineered to produce its own insecticide against the European corn borer, a moth whose caterpillars chew on corn ears and stalks. Environmental groups oppose the crop's introduction; they worry that maize 1507 will harm nontarget species and lead to a surge in the use of a toxic herbicide to which maize 1507 has been made resistant. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has given the variety a green light in six reports since 2005, albeit with some restrictions to prevent collateral damage, such as planting 20% of conventional corn as a “buffer zone” around a GM field. “It is clear that the scientific evidence supports approval for cultivation of this crop,” writes Anne Glover, the commission's chief scientific adviser, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.

But EFSA does not have the final word. Based on its advice, the European Commission issued a draft decision to authorize the crop. Member states had to sign off on that decision through a regulatory committee, made up of experts from each government. The committee failed to reach a consensus, however: E.U. countries such as Austria and France are strictly opposed to growing GM crops, while other states, including Spain and the Netherlands, are more GM-friendly.

Instead of referring the matter to the higher level—the Council of Ministers—the commission then sat on the file for several years. Pioneer fought that inaction in court. In September, the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg finally slammed the commission's failure to reach a timely decision, and now, the commission is pressuring member states to decide. If the Council of Ministers does not muster a weighted majority to reject the crop's cultivation within 3 months, the European Commission has the right to authorize it anyway—and it says it will do so.

What's more, health commissioner Tonio Borg has urged ministers to get their act together so that other crops won't suffer similar delays. Borg told reporters here yesterday that he wants to revive the commission's so-called “cultivation proposal,” put forward in 2010 to reform authorization procedures. Under this plan, a green light from the European Commission would remain valid across the European Union by default, but member states could individually decide not to grow an authorized GM crop on their territory—even if EFSA sees no scientific objections.

That proposal—an agreement to disagree—hasn't gone anywhere either, however. According to sources close to the negotiations at the time, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom opposed the idea of letting countries make individual decisions. Some doubted the legal validity of the plan. Others disagreed with the very idea of “renationalizing” procedures that should be valid across the European Union; they argued that the commission was passing the hot potato back to the member states, which are under pressure from consumers who often reject GM food. Instead of trying to build coherent E.U.-wide rules, the commission “is shying away now that the going gets tough,” says Angelika Hilbeck, an agroecology researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

At the moment, only two GM crops are allowed for cultivation in the European Union, and only one is actually grown: Monsanto's MON810 maize, approved in 1998, which represents 1.35% of the total surface of maize planted in the union, most of it in Spain. Fifty-one GM crops are authorized for importation in the European Union, in particular soya and maize for feed use.

A spokesman for Pioneer Europe in Manno, Switzerland, says the company is now “confident” that maize 1507 will be approved for cultivation “without further delay.” But environmental groups still hope its introduction can be stopped. “We don't need to take risks with untested and toxic GM crops that threaten our environment and lead to more industrial farming,” said Mute Schimpf, a food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, in a statement on 5 November.