European Union member states would have the power to ban the cultivation of genetically modified organisms under a forthcoming proposal from the European Commission that is intended to break a regulatory logjam of the controversial products.
The draft proposal is to be tabled next month by John Dalli, the commissioner for health and consumer policy, and has been highly anticipated by the biotech industry and groups that oppose GMOs.
The plan attempts to end the EU’s paralysis over GMOs by giving individual member states the authority to ban their cultivation for whatever reason they please, according to people who have reviewed the document. Under the current policy, bans must be supported by scientific evidence of health concerns – a process that can involve years of review.
In return, Mr Dalli is hoping that those member states that are staunch opponents of GMOs, such as Austria and Hungary, will abandon delaying tactics and allow others to use them.
Partisans on both sides of the debate offered a cautious welcome on Friday to news of the proposal.
Adrian Bebb, an agriculture specialist at Friends of the Earth Europe, which has long warned of health and environmental risks posed by GMOs, called the proposal “a welcome opportunity for countries in Europe to ban genetically modified crops”. But, Mr Bebb warned, stronger barriers would be needed to protect states that reject GMOs from those that embrace them.
Mike Hall, a spokesman for Pioneer Hi-Bred, a division of DuPont, said his company supported any measure that would give farmers more choice, but noted that “the devil is always in the detail of these things”.
Specifically, Mr Hall speculated that the proposal could run afoul of the EU’s internal market rules if it resulted in farmers from Spain or Slovakia having access to GMO seeds while those in neighbouring France or Hungary did not.
Meanwhile, Médard Schoenmaeckers, a spokesperson for Syngenta, another agri-business company, warned that the new proposal could have the unintended consequence of making the regulatory process more complex.
The draft proposal follows the Commission’s decision in March to break a 12-year moratorium on the cultivation of GMOs in Europe when it gave approval to Amflora, a potato engineered by German chemicals group BASF. Amflora, which produces high volumes of starch for paper manufacturers and other industrial users, is to be grown in Germany, the Czech Republic and Sweden.
That decision reflected the determination by Mr Dalli and his boss, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, to pursue a GMO policy based on science, and that supported their broader goal of improving European innovation. It was seen as a potential sea-change in a GMO policy that had become paralysed by political division and bureaucratic delay.
GMO proponents argue that their products have passed repeated health reviews from the European Food Safety Authority, and that without them European farmers will face a widening competitive gap with counterparts in the US, Canada and Latin America.
The Commission is also expected to propose new rules later this year that would relax a zero-tolerance policy on imports of cattle feed contaminated with traces of unapproved GMOs.
Get alerts on Food & Beverage when a new story is published