Press Notice 11th March 2010
Magda Stoczkiewicz Director of Friends of the Earth Europe.
The European Commission has just approved a genetically modified crop for cultivation in the EU, its first such decision in 12 years. Magda Stoczkiewicz says the decision flouts the public will, while Willy De Greef argues it is an important step forward.
The decision by the new European Commission to approve the cultivation in Europe of Amflora, genetically modified (GM) potato developed by BASF, raises serious questions about both the Commission's motive and its willingness to bring the EU closer to its citizens. It is now moving in the opposite direction to the majority of European citizens and member states. Not an impressive start.
The Commission could not have chosen a more superfluous and risky product with which to pick its first GM fight. For the first time, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was unable to reach a unanimous decision on the safety of a product; starch processors in BASF's homeland, Germany, are refusing to accept the potato; and conventionally bred alternatives are available on the market. This potato is hardly a shining example of European innovation.
The Commission made this controversial decision in a manner that is unprecedented, using a written procedure that allowed the 27-member college of commissioners just three days to react. It was a method seemingly designed to avoid discussion. What is the public to make of an administration that takes such a decision in such a manner in its first few weeks, after 15 years of scientific and public debate over the cultivation of GM crops? That choice shows either a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue, or blind support for the biotech industry. The new commissioners will now find themselves questioned as to why they accepted being steamrolled through this procedure. Is this how the Commission will deal with controversial subjects in the future?
If the Commission was hoping to break the deadlock in the EU on GM crops with this decision, it has failed: it has, instead, re-kindled public debate about our food and farming and is likely to galvanise public opposition, giving member states further reason to refuse GM crop cultivation.
Friends of the Earth Europe, like many other civil-society organisations, is calling for a freeze on all new GM food and crop authorisations so that the questions regarding their impact and the procedures for authorising them can be fully addressed.
To date, GM crops in Europe, whether on the market or in the lab, have been an embarrassment for the biotech industry: the large majority of farmers and consumers will not grow or eat herbicide-tolerant and insecticide-tolerant crops - the only GM crops available on the worldwide market - and the percentage of the EU's total agricultural land planted with GM crops is less than 0.05%, a percentage that has fallen for five years. Despite decades of research and public money, there is still not a single commercially available GM crop worldwide that increases yields, resists droughts, tolerates salt, enhances nutrition or has the other benefits long promised by biotech companies. Six countries have banned the only GM crop previously approved for cultivation, Bt-maize Mon810, and public opposition remains strong.
The potato case highlights once again the weakness in the current approvals process and the need for urgent reform. In 2008, during the French presidency of the Council of Ministers, the EU's environment ministers unanimously supported calls for the Commission to reform EFSA and its operations, and demanded an investigation of the long- term impact of GM crops on the environment and on non-target organisms. It is now up to the Commission to implement the Council agreement.
In addition, the debate about the re-nationalisation of decision- making on GM cultivation has now begun. The debate about GM foods and crops, in the general public and between the EU's member states, will clearly intensify in the years ahead.
If the new Commission approved the GM potato to gauge public opinion and the resistance of member states, then the global headlines and public outrage of the last week send a clear message: European citizens have no appetite for GM foods, and expect the new Commission to be at the service of Europe's people and their environment, rather than of big business.