EU Alters GMO Assessments to Satisfy Resistant Member States

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 12, 2006 (ENS) - Today the European Commission approved measures intended to improve the scientific consistency and transparency for decisions on allowing European market access to genetically modified food and animal feed.

Over the past five years, the European Union has put in place a system to regulate the marketing and production of genetically modified food, feed and crops. The EU authorization procedure is intended to ensure that only genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which are safe for human and animal consumption and for release into the environment can be placed on the European market.

Clear labeling rules allow farmers, other users and consumers to choose whether or not to purchase such products and the rules also ensure that each GMO can be traced at each stage of its use.

label But the marketing of genetically modified foods and feed is strongly resisted by many European Union member states. There are 12 national bans against GMOs and member states have recently criticized the European Union's GMO authorization procedure for its lack of transparency and democracy.

No qualified majority has been reached by European ministers in favor of authorizing GMOs since the ending of the EU moratorium on GMOs in May 2004. In addition, 172 regions have declared their wish to be GMO-free.

But GMO-free regions and member states have been threatened with legal action, and member states are not allowed to ban GMOs in ecologically sensitive areas.

Pressured on one side by reluctant member states and environmental groups to reject GMOs and on the other side by GMO producing companies such as Monsanto, and GMO producing nations such as the United States, as well as the World Trade Organization, to approve authorization of GMOs, the European Commission is attempting to please both sides.

Dimas

European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
The new measures are proposed in an attempt to reassure member states, stakeholders and the general public that European Commission decisions on GMOs "are based on high quality scientific assessments which deliver a high level of protection of human health and the environment," said European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas and Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

They propose that in the scientific evaluation phase, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) "liaise more fully with national scientific bodies" to resolve divergent scientific opinions with member states.

Based in Parma, Italy, the EFSA is an agency of the European Community that provides scientific advice on all matters with a direct or indirect impact on food and feed safety. The EFSA was established by the European Parliament in 2002 following a series of food scares in the 1990s, such as mad cow disease and dioxins, which undermined consumer confidence in the safety of the food chain.

Slorach

Stuart Slorach is chairman of the European Food Safety Authority's Management Board, which is responsible for overseeing the work of the agency. (Photo courtesy )
Under the proposed changes to the GMO assessment procedure, the EFSA will be asked to provide more detailed justification in its opinions on individual applications for permits to bring GMO products to market. The advisory body will be asked to justify its decisions not to accept scientific objections raised by the national competent authorities.

Applicants for permits and the EFSA will be asked to address more explicitly the potential long-term effects and biodiversity issues in their risk assessments, the commissioners said.

The EFSA will be invited to clarify which specific protocols should be used by applicants to carry out scientific studies, for example regarding toxicology, demonstrating safety of the GMOs at issue.

In the decisionmaking phase, the Dimas and Kyprianou said the Commission will address specific risks identified in the risk assessment or substantiated by member states by introducing additional risk management measures in draft decisions to place GMO products on the market on a case by case basis.

corn Where in the opinion of the Commission a member state’s observation "raises important new scientific questions not properly or completely addressed by the European Food Safety Authority opinion," the Commission may suspend the procedure and refer back the question for further consideration by the Authority, Dimas and Kyprianou said.

The commissioners said the proposed improvements will be made within the existing legal framework, in compliance with European Community and World Trade Organization law, and avoiding any undue delays in authorization procedures.

The EFSA said that it has invited Commissioner Dimas to a meeting to discuss the proposals.

"As an open and transparent scientific organisation EFSA takes any criticism seriously and invites those who may not agree with the opinions to debate scientific issues in an open way. In line with this policy EFSA invited the NGOs for a meeting in February in Parma, and has invited national experts to participate in a meeting on GMOs risk assessment and the input of Member States in this process on May 15 in Brussels," the Authority said today.

field

Greenpeace marks a maize field in Germany with signs showing corn with a question mark. Is it genetically modified or not? (Photo by Martin Langer courtesy Greenpeace)
Dimas and Kyprianou say that these proposals to modify authorization process are "not just the result of the Commission’s internal reflections," but also draw on discussions with member states and stakeholders.

The Commission will discuss its proposals with the member states in the Council, and with the EFSA in the coming months with the objective of building greater consensus and transparency in this policy area.

The EU regulatory system for GMOs, one of the strictest in the world, is based on the granting of individual authorizations for placing GMOs on the European Union market, following scientific evaluation on a case by case basis.

The commissioners point out that requests for authorizations which do not fulfill all criteria have been and will continue to be rejected.

The deep divisions in European public opinion on the issue were evident at last week's conference in Vienna on the co-existence of genetically modified crops with traditional and organic crops.

European politicians, senior civil servants and experts from universities, businesses and nongovernmental organizations gathered in Vienna on April 4-6 to discuss future policies on co-existence.

Commissioner Dimas said, “In an area where public opinion is so strong, as is GMO policy, it is the duty of the Commission to work together with member states to ensure that rules for the authorization and use of GM crops respond to the concerns of citizens and protect biodiversity in our natural environment whilst at the same time complying with the functioning of the internal market.”

“This conference is a crucial step in the consultation process,” said Mariann Fischer Boel, commissioner for agriculture and rural development. “This is not a question of health or environmental protection, because no GMOs are allowed on the EU market unless they have been proved to be completely safe. But segregation measures must be in place to ensure that accidental traces of GMOs in conventional or organic products are kept within the strict ranges defined by EU legislation.”

Both commissioners relied on the concept of freedom of choice for farmers to grow whichever type of crops they wish - genetically modified, traditional, or organic.

Dimas said, "Farmers must be able to choose the crops they grow, whether conventional, or organic or other, and have confidence in the quality and purity of their harvested products. Consumers need to know what they put in their shopping baskets and what ends up on their plates. And last but not least, the impact of cultivation of certain crops on biodiversity and the environment must be clearly established."

But Friends of the Earth denounced the commissioners' freedom of choice position.

demonstration

Friends of the Earth has been opposed to genetically modified foods for years. This demonstration against GMOs in front of the European Union's Council of Ministers building in Brussels on October 9, 2002 drew people from Friends of the Earth groups from 14 European countries. ( (Photo courtesy FOEI)
"Freedom of choice - but who for?" asked Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow. "The European Commission seems determined to allow genetically modified crops to be grown regardless of whether they contaminate our food and countryside. This policy puts industry interests before all else and threatens the very existence of sustainable farming and quality food."

Currently, only about 60,000 hectares of genetically modified crops are commercially grown in the European Union. They are limited to specific regions of Spain, where two varieties of insect-resistant maize are grown.

But now, new genetically modified maize varieties are in the pipeline for approval for cultivation.

Whether or not farmers grow such varieties is "a matter of choice," Dimas said, "but again, it remains essential that such GM crops can co-exist with conventional and organic agricultural production."

Visit the European Food Safety Authority at: http://www.efsa.eu.int/about_efsa/catindex_en.html