GM Free Cymru

GM Freeze slams new EC proposals relating to GMOs

Date Added to website 1st May 2014

[Note: GM Freeze is calling on as many people as possible to write to Prime Minister David Cameron and to other key EU persons demanding that the latest EC proposals (relating to GMO national bans etc) should be turned down on the grounds that they are legally flawed. This briefing note covers the key issues.]

Background to this action

In 2009 the Commission invited all EU Member States to provide information on its "consideration of socio-economic factors in the context of cultivation of GMOs". Recognition was growing that the system provided for Member States to ban GM cultivation in their territories was flawed because it did not permit considerations beyond safety to be used as grounds for a ban, and EFSA's assessment of safety could not be questioned without new scientific evidence acceptable to the Commission that had not been considered by EFSA in the assessment process. In practice this made banning GM crops extremely difficult, and countries like France and Poland faced legal sanction from the Commission for their attempts to enforce such bans in their territories.

Round 1

Initial attempts to find agreement faltered. A legal opinion for GM Freeze and others by Paul Lasok QC in July 2010 found the Commission proposal to be "riddled with legal uncertainty and lack of reasoning".

Round 2

By 2012 the Danish Presidency of the Council declared it would find a solution to the "impasse" and provide a means for countries to ban GM crops. Far from an anti-GM measure the Danish proposal presumed that providing the means for countries to ban GM crops would facilitate a more rapid and regular approval of more GM crops in the EU – something the US had long complained was a problem. Indeed the Danish proposal attempted to enforce this notion by requiring any Member State wishing to ban a GM crop to first vote in favour of it in Council deliberations. This fundamental moral contradiction (that a country must vote in favour of a crop it wished to ban), coupled with continued uncertainty about the legal legitimacy of such bans and the erosion of the Single Market, lead to the failure of the Danish model. At that time:
• The UK opposed any proposal that did not provide legally sound grounds for bans, but did support a version in which countries could seek the consent of GM companies for a ban.
• The Germans voted against due to the way such a proposal would undermine the Single Market.
• These countries with a large number of votes helped block progress of the Danish proposal.

Third time lucky?

In 2013 court ruling on process for Pioneer1507 highlighted the deep disagreements in the EU about GM cultivation. The court ruled that action had to be taken on the application. However despite a clear rejection by the Parliament, and a clear majority of EU countries wishing to reject the crop, the Council would not deliver the Qualified Majority needed to reject or approve the crop. In such a case the Commission would be left to decide on the file – presumably to approve it, although this is not a requirement as is often stated. The matter of approving Pioneer1507 for cultivation became linked to the desire of many countries to ban GM cultivation. In 2014 the Greek Presidency declared it would provide the means for countries to ban GM crops. Based on the Danish model, the new proposal repeated the suggestion that Member States would have to seek the permission of the applicant (ie, a GM company) to ban a crop.

However this current Greek proposal is also fundamentally flawed in several ways:

• It attempts to give GM companies control over the decision on GM cultivation in any given country by requiring Governments to seek the permission of the GM company to ban the crop within a fixed timeframe at the time the crop is under authorisation consideration. Companies are not Governments, and democratically elected Governments have the right and responsibility to legislate and regulate in the best interests of citizens.
• It does not provide legal certainty under international trade agreements, including the WTO, meaning even if countries manage to secure the permission of a GM company to ban a GM crop at the correct time, they may still face legal suits from other countries under trade agreements.
• It is only a one-way street: countries may only make requests to GM companies to ban the cultivation of any given GM crop at the time that crop is authorised. Changes in Governments could lead to a move toward GM crops, but there is no mechanism for countries to move away from GM crops. In this way the proposal may inadvertently facilitate an escalation in European GM cultivation over time, surely not something the firmly anti-GM Greeks had in mind.

Sadly much has changed politically since the Danish proposal was put down, and internal exasperation in the Council is leading many countries to seek unacceptable compromises in order to end the so-called logjam in GM crop approvals (the law is working as it should, but GM proponents dislike the low number of crops approved in this way). This is dangerous because the vote is based on a complex Qualified Majority system of weighted votes. The current situation suggests that this unacceptable compromise may succeed:

• The Germans abstained from an initial discussion of the proposal and are now faced with complex internal disagreement about how to vote.
• The UK, represented by Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson, now supports the measure.
• The French opposed the current proposal and are said to have tabled their own. First things first

The 2008 "Council Conclusion on Genetically Modified Organisms" (arrived at by the 2912th Environment Council meeting on 4 December 2008) recognised that, "GMOs, in particular cultivation of genetically modified plants, give rise to discussion and questions, within the scientific community and society at large, regarding their possible impact on health, environment and ecosystems." The Conclusion sought improvements in the implementation of the legal framework for authorising GM crops in line with the Precautionary Principle and international obligations. The Conclusion, among other things:

• Underlined the need to study the potential consequences for the environment of changes in the use of herbicides cause by herbicide tolerant GM crops.
• Invited EFSA and Member States to "pursue the formation of an extensive network" of scientific organisations from all disciplines (noting ecology in particular) to ensure the assessment of risk from GM cultivation meet the legal requirement for EFSA to "exercise vigilance in order to identify at an earl stage any potential divergence between scientific opinions".
• Emphasised the need for Member States and the Commission to ensure that systematic, independent research on the risks of releasing or marketing GMOs is conducted, noting the need for independent researchers to be given "access to all relevant material while respecting intellectual property rights".
• Invited Member States to collect and exchange information on socio-economic implications for marketing GMOs on agronomic sustainability.

GM Freeze believes that Governments should be able to ban GM crops if they wish, and that the clear view of the EU Parliament and the majority of EU countries against GM cultivation should be respected.

Furthermore GM Freeze believes it is unacceptable to attempt to place multinational GM companies on an equal footing with democratically elected Governments in the regulation of GM crops.

Finally much has changed since 2008. The scientific understanding of both genetics (including the emerging discipline of epigenetics) and of GM technology continue to deepen, leading to an increase in the understanding of the risks involved. Independent scientists continue to struggle to investigate these risks and face concerted attacks for their GM-skeptic findings. Until the entirely reasonable requests made by the Council in 2008 are properly acted upon and the Precautionary Principle applies as required by law, EU GM cultivation should be halted, not expanded, to protect the environment, consumers, farmers, beekeepers and the economies upon which we rely.

We need to stop this proposal. If we don't we could see more GM crops growing as early as next year – including in the UK.