EU brings legal clarity to ongoing debate on GM

Mairead McGuinness

The EU has one of the toughest genetically modified food regulations in the world, and the cultivation of GM crops is only allowed after thorough risk assessment.

The European Parliament and Council of Ministers has reached an agreement on an EU Commission proposal to give member states more flexibility to deal with GMOs on their own territory.

Mairead McGuinness, MEP and vice-president of the European Parliament, has clarified some details of the decision for us.

After years of dispute and blocking of GM crops, there is now an agreement. Why did the EU want to change the system for authorising GM products?

Basically, the reason for change is because there are deep divisions within and between Member States on GM technology and the cultivation of GM crops.

Some member states have rejected attempts to have GM crops grown on their territory but lacked the legal clarity under EU rules which gives member states the possibility to ban cultivation of GM crops on their territory by giving them the legal methods to do so.

Some member states have been pushing for more freedom and flexibility to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs on their territory. This new law gives them that possibility while not changing the regulatory procedure on how GM crops are authorised within the EU by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA).

Last week’s vote by MEPs gave the go-ahead to member states to restrict or prohibit the growth of GMOs on environmental grounds, other than the risks to health and the environment which are assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Can any genetically modified crops be grown in the EU?

Only crops authorised at EU level, following a strict risk assessment by EFSA.

What GMOs are already cultivated in the EU?

Currently, only one GM crop — insect-resistant maize MON 810 from Monsanto — is grown in the EU. However, some countries — Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland — have adopted safeguard clauses to prohibit its cultivation on their soil.

Explain the new two-phase approach for member states to ban cultivation of GMOs.

Phase one allows member states to participate in the GMO authorisation procedure at an EU level. Member states can request the applicant or company to modify the scope of the geographical area intended for authorisation.

Phase two comes into effect after the authorisation procedure is complete. EU states can still prohibit the authorised GMO crop from being cultivated in their territory. However, there cannot be any conflict between national measures implemented and environmental risk assessment carried out by EFSA.

Member States can use grounds such as agriculture policy objectives, land use, socio- economic impacts, public policy and co-existence to restrict of prohibit GMOs in their territory. Such restrictions are applicable to individual crops and groups of GMOs.

What are the implications for Ireland?

There is no commercial cultivation of GMO products in Ireland, nor is there any expected in the short to mid-term given the lack of relevant GMO products on the market, so there are no direct or immediate implications for Ireland arising from this latest development.

However, opposition to GM technology may, in the long run, have implications for Irish and EU farmers where companies move their research facilities and focus away from the EU due to lack of support for GM technology generally in the EU. There may be competitive issues where farmers outside the EU have access to technology while EU farmers do not.

Is last week’s decision relevant to imports by EU member states of genetically modified crops grown outside the EU?

The new law relates only to the growing of GM crops in the EU, it does not impact on the import of GM cereals into the EU which will continue as at present whereby once the GM crop is approved by EU regulatory procedure as safe, it can be imported and used in the EU.

The EU is heavily reliant on imported plant protein sources (soya) for animal feed production. The bulk of the imported soya is GM soya sourced outside the EU.

Do you think the latest change will increase or decrease cultivation of GM crops in the EU?

The development may not change significantly the current situation as member states opposed to GM have managed to do so up to now, but following the vote in the European Parliament, they now have clarity and certainty about the methods they can use to block GM cultivation.

However, there will be further development on this issue with a commitment by the new EU Commission in its 2015 work programme to review the decision-making process for the authorisation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in order to address the concerns of citizens’ and Member States as regards the Commission’s current legal obligation to approve the authorisation of GMOs in cases where a clear majority of member States opposes the proposal. This review may come as early as May and will see the GM debate remaining on the agenda.


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