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Frédérique Ries, the European Parliament's lead negotiator on the GM cultivation proposal, casts her vote.

Frédérique Ries, the European Parliament's lead negotiator on the GM cultivation proposal, casts her vote.

European Union 2014 - EP

E.U. moves closer to enabling national bans on GM crops

BRUSSELS—Members of the European Parliament agreed yesterday on draft rules allowing individual governments to refuse growing genetically modified (GM) crops on their territory, even if the products have been authorized on the European level. The plan could help reconcile anti- and pro-GM countries, unlock stalled approval processes, and lead to more GM crops in European fields—although many countries are likely to take the opportunity to restrict them.

Although the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has sanctioned several GM crops, many European consumers spurn these foods, and some national governments have tried outlawing them. In the past decade, disagreement among states has crippled regulatory decisions, and some countries have seen their bans challenged in court by seed producers.

To avoid such impasses in the future, the plan gives more power to national governments—at the expense of pan-European market congruence. "In exchange for forgoing a common European rule, we give more flexibility to member states to be more in tune with their public opinion, and this is no small feat," said Frédérique Ries, the Parliament's lead negotiator on this matter, in a statement after the vote.

GM opponents have praised the Parliament's latest version of the bill, approved here yesterday by the committee in charge of environmental, public health, and food safety (ENVI) issues, for going further than the text agreed to by member states in June. The bill as it stands "would give European countries a legally solid right to ban GM cultivation in their territory, making it difficult for the biotech industry to challenge such bans in court,” said Marco Contiero, agriculture policy director at Greenpeace EU here in Brussels, in a statement after the vote.

But the plan has dismayed biotech companies, which say the proposal “sets a negative precedent” for other science-based industries. “We are now moving from a system that lacks proper enforcement to a system that is designed not to work,” says Beat Späth, director for agricultural biotechnology at the industry association EuropaBio here, in a statement sent to ScienceInsider by e-mail today.

Many scientists have echoed industry's concerns. On 30 October, 21 plant scientists issued an open letter to " decision makers in Europe," complaining that politics has stalled plant science and calling for the "prompt authorization" of GM plant varieties that EFSA has deemed safe.

"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," says Stefan Jansson, a professor of plant cell and molecular biology at Umeå University’s Plant Science Centre in Sweden, who was one of the signatories to the letter. "If we start to say there could be other grounds [for banning a product], we undermine the scientific basis of the whole system."

In crucial amendments, parliamentarians proposed letting member states ban a given crop for a broader range of reasons, including environmental grounds, without putting in question EFSA's science-based risk assessment. "It's not about [member states] proving EFSA wrong" with fresh scientific evidence, Contiero says, but about letting governments, as risk managers, restrict the use of given crops, for example to avoid the development of pesticide-resistant weeds, or interbreeding between GM and conventional or wild plants.

In other significant changes, the ENVI committee scrapped the member states' proposal to involve seed companies directly in the banning process—an idea that had outraged environmental groups—and suggested letting member states ban groups of crops at once, instead of one by one. The Parliament's text also requires member states to take "appropriate measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in other products on their territory and in border areas of neighbouring Member States," for example by creating buffer zones between GM and non-GM fields.

The Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of Ministers have now entered negotiations to settle on a joint version of the text, which they aim to agree on before the end of the year.