The authorisation of Bt 11 sweet maize for food use in May this year marked the end of Europe's de facto moratorium on GM approvals. However, there is by no means consensus on GMOs in Europe. Lim Li Ching explains how approvals can still occur despite objections
On 20 September 2004, an EU regulatory committee failed to reach a decision to support a proposal by the European Commission for the import of Monsanto's GM maize (MON863 and MON863 x MON810 hybrids). The committee postponed a formal vote on Monsanto's application, to seek clarification and more information. A regulatory committee vote is expected for MON863 maize on 29th November. The maize has been controversial, as concerns have been raised regarding the results of a feeding study that showed effects in the blood and kidneys of rats fed the GM maize. These effects were unobserved in rats fed conventional maize.
This is just the latest in a string of GM applications to meet strong resistance from European countries. It was the eighth failed attempt by the Commission to win support for a GMO or GM product. Health and environmental concerns over these GMOs have been raised by scientists and regulators from various countries.
Under current EU law, when an application is made by a company to market a GMO or GM product in a Member State, and there is no consensus among other Member States, then the Commission steps in. It seeks advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which provides the various scientific panels that carry out environmental risk and human and animal health assessment. Lack of scientific consensus has sometimes occurred at this stage. If EFSA supports an application, the Commission drafts and adopts a proposal to approve the GMO or GM product concerned.
This is then transmitted to the appropriate regulatory committee, depending on the intended use of the GMO or GM product concerned. The committees comprise representatives of the 25 Member States. Decisions are made by a 'qualified majority' vote. The votes are weighted among the Member States according to their size. A certain percentage of the weighted votes (232 out of 321 votes) are required to reach qualified majority.
If the regulatory committee cannot reach a qualified majority to adopt or reject a Commission proposal, the next decision level is the Council of Ministers (comprising environment or agriculture ministers from the 25 Member States, depending on the intended use of the GMO or GMO product). A qualified majority is needed to either approve or reject the proposal.
However, in the absence of a qualified majority and according to the so-called 'comitology' procedure, the Commission can take the final decision. This means that 'approval' of a GMO in the EU can occur despite continuing objections by a number of Member States. In addition, such 'approval' goes against the wishes of most European citizens, who overwhelmingly reject GMOs.
The following is a list of the failures to reach qualified majority at either the regulatory committee or Council stages since December 2003:
In other developments, on 8 September 2004, the Commission approved the inscription of 17 varieties derived from MON 810 maize in the Common EU Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species. MON 810 has been authorised in the EU since 1998, under previous weaker legislation, but this is the first time GM varieties have been added to the Common Catalogue.
The move allows farmers to commercially grow the GM varieties across the whole of Europe. Before this decision, the 17 varieties seeds only had national authorisations - 6 are on the national catalogue in France, 11 in Spain - so only farmers in those countries were able to buy and plant the seeds. There is an on-going Europe-wide campaign to "Stop the Crop", being co-ordinated by the Friends of the Earth Europe (see www.foeeurope.org/GMOs/gmofree/). And opposition is not just coming from NGOs; fifteen of the 25 EU member states have also criticised the Commission's decision. In addition, Poland's environment and agriculture ministries want to have continued national restrictions on the cultivation of MON 810.
The Commission however was unable to reach consensus on a proposal to set maximum levels of GMO contamination in seeds. A draft decision was due to be adopted by Commissioners, proposing a 0.3% threshold in maize and oilseed rape, before triggering labelling. Critics, including farmers, trade unions, environmental groups, and seed producers, deem this threshold as too high and have campaigned for it to be set at 0.1%, the current lowest technically feasible level. Moreover, Austria has had a workable and feasible seed purity law since 2002. It adopted a 'zero-tolerance' policy, prohibiting contamination of seeds with GM varieties above the detection level of 0.1%.
The decision on seed thresholds was postponed pending more information on the economic impact of the proposed threshold. The issue will now come before the newly appointed Commission. Incoming agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, had campaigned for a 0.1% threshold in her native Denmark, and has told the European Parliament that the seed thresholds should be set at the lowest possible level.
In addition, the national bans on GMOs held by a number of European countries are currently being challenged. The European Commission is reportedly intending to ask countries to vote on 29th November at a regulatory committee meeting, on whether each country that has a national ban should lift its embargo. Such bans are the subject of the complaints against the EU brought to the WTO by the US, Canada and Argentina, with those countries claiming that they are trade barriers.
It is clear that the GM fight will continue in Europe. But resistance is still strong at all levels.
Article first published 01/11/04
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