The discord and confusion that exists in Europe over GMOs was once again highlighted last month when ministers gathered to discuss plans to authorise the cultivation of a genetically modified maize crop. Ireland was one of the 19 EU member states who came out in opposition to plans to give insect-resistant Pioneer 1507 the go ahead, and yet the European Commission still seems set to approve it. This perplexing situation, and the heated debate that echoes around it, could be said to typify the GMO discussion in Europe.
If approved, Pioneer 1507 would be only the third GM crop ever approved for commercial cultivation in the EU. A GM potato was formerly approved, but European Court of Justice later blocked all cultivation of it. This means only one GM crop – a pesticide-producing maize owned by US company Monsanto – is currently grown on EU soil. Approved in 1998, the solitary GM maize known as MON 810 represents 1.35% of all maize cultivated in the EU with Spain growing the lion’s share (covering 116,306 hectares). Eight EU countries however (Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland) have adopted safeguard measures against it and prohibited its cultivation. At the moment more than 20 other GM crops are queuing up to join MON 810 in European fields although they must await authorisation for cultivation. GMOs do exist in other forms in Europe – 49 GMOs for animal feed are in circulation in the EU. According to the biotech industry, in 2013 the EU imported 38.5 million tons of soy and maize protein – over 85% was GM.
In Europe, consumer opposition to GMOs remains relatively strong. Green groups argue that GMOs can be responsible for irreversible genetic contamination and can contaminate all of our agriculture and food systems. They accuse the agrochemical companies of attempting to put a patent on life and note that the impacts of GMOs are unpredictable and still unknown. Meanwhile the biotech industry argues that there has never been a substantiated health issue related to GMOs and point to the voices from leading farming, scientific and public health groups that agree that GM technologies have a role to play in addressing the food and feed needs of a rapidly growing population.
Europeans may not agree when it comes to GMOs, but lobbies on both sides of the debate do seem to agree on one thing: the flawed nature of the EU’s GMO approval system. Greenpeace criticises the risk assessment of GM crops carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Greens in the European Parliament insist that we cannot persist with the current situation by which authorisations proceed in spite of the consistent opposition of a majority of EU member states. EuropaBio, the European association for the biotechnology industry, says the system is stuck in a vicious cycle of a lack of approvals and decreased trust in the technology. As Nathalie Moll of EuropaBio notes, “No other regulated product category scores as high as GMOs in terms of number of product application dossiers that: a) cannot be agreed to by a regulatory committee and therefore end up in an Ambassadors’ or Ministers’ vote (100% of the time) and, b) never result in a qualified majority neither in favour nor against (99.9% of the time).” Moll argues that this ‘dysfunctional and unpredictable authorisation system’ has led European companies to leave Europe and denies farmers the freedom to choose what to grow, when and where.
NGOs campaigning against GMOs, on the other hand, brand EFSA’s risk assessment as insufficient and accuse the European Commission of trying to prematurely usher through GM authorisation. These organisations welcomed the December 2013 ruling by the European Court of Justice which struck down the Commission’s previous authorisation of a GM potato, Amflora. The Court found that the Commission had altered its original proposal to approve Amflora, but had failed to consult again with a committee of national experts. Now, many green groups argue, the Commission is doing the same thing with Pioneer 1507.
The EU Health Commissioner, Tonio Borg, insists that the Commission is only following EU rules and is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the crop will be approved. It probably won’t happen in the next few months however. European Commission sources say the approval will be postponed until after the European elections in May as EU officials fear the move could fuel eurosceptic forces already gaining ground across the continent. The debate will roll on long past May but it is likely that this, the EU’s third ever GM crop, will be approved for cultivation amid consternation and controversy before the next planting season.
Aoife O’Grady is an Irish, Brussels-based journalist focusing on environmental issues and EU correspondent for irish environment magazine