EU moves closer to easing ban on GMOs, approving strict laws governing their use.

The European Parliament has voted in favour of new rules to test and monitor the safety of GM crops. However, six countries have said GM approvals won’t be allowed until issues of traceability and labelling have been resolved.

The Parliament approved the new rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by 338 votes to 52 with 85 abstentions on 14 February, which will include granting 10-year permits for GM crops to be grown and labelling for foodstuffs. However, the block on approvals could remain for years as France, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg in a joint declaration said they will do “everything in their power” to prevent new authorisations until complementary rules on GM traceability and labelling are in place. This could take up to two years and, in any case, even though the EU can overrule these nations, it would probably be unwilling to on such a politically sensitive issue.

The new legislation updates a 1990 law on GMOs that politicians and the biotechnology industry agreed did not create a clear system for regulation. A moratorium on new authorisations for the commercial use of GMOs has been in place since 1999 (see related story) was due to come to an end in 2003, so a new ruling was essential. At present only around a dozen GM crops, mostly maize and soya, have been authorised for testing in the EU, but now David Bowe, the British Labour MEP responsible for introducing the draft legislation in the European Parliament, predicts the moratorium to be lifted shortly.

This would mean that GMO crops currently awaiting approval, such as herbicide-resistant maize, rapeseed and fodder beet, would get the green light. “We now have the toughest GM legislation in the world, there’s no doubt about that,” Bowe said, adding that he expected planting to be underway by this time next year.

Details of the new legislation include:

  • a commitment to bring forward a proposal on labelling and traceability, which are essential for consumers as they can only take decisions on what they know, the paper says. The Commission is likely to say that the proposal will be presented in the course of 2001 and will provide appropriate traceability for products derived from GMOs, as well as supplementing the labelling regime in accordance with the White Paper on Food Safety;
  • no restrictions on GM medicinal substances and compounds, provided that their voluntary release is not carried out for the purposes of placing them on the market, at which point the directive will apply and certain conditions will be required, including a risk assessment, consent prior to release, a surveillance plan and the provision of information;
  • a requirement for the notification to GMO importing countries (see related story) including accurate information about the GMOs in order to gain consent for the import;
  • public registration of GMOs released in the trial period, despite problems encountered in the UK with such registers (see related story);
  • GMOs released for commercial purposes must have their locations notified to the competent authorities and made known to the public in a manner deemed appropriate by the authorities.
  • GMOs with antibiotic resistance will be phased out by 31 December 2004 for GMOs placed on the market as products; GMOs released experimentally are now due to be phased out by 31 December 2008, preventing the resistance from crossing over to other species.

Environmental groups are pleased with some of the legislation but have grave concerns about other specifics. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the largest federation of environmental organisations in Brussels, acknowledged that the compromise text “represents an improvement compared with the existing Directive 90/220, in particular as regards the increased access to information through the public registers of all GMOs grown.” However, it described the final package as “a compromise that still has some major shortcomings regarding in particular traceability, labelling and liability.”

“We call upon the Council and the Parliament to keep the moratorium until clear and strict rules on traceability, labelling and liability, both for GMOs and products derived from GMOs, are in place”, said Mauro Albrizio, EEB Vice-President. He added that the group also urged the EC and Parliament to reject the Commission’s proposal on resuming GMO approvals through voluntary agreement with industry.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) said that the new rules “won’t protect consumers, farmers or the environment” and welcomed the six-nation stand on a new moratorium. Greenpeace, however, said the tough conditions attached to authorisations sent “a clear signal that commercialisation of GM plants, feed and food will become more difficult in Europe over the next ten years.”

The news was welcomed by the biotechnology industry, with its industry group, EuropaBio, saying that the directive would “further strengthen the already stringent safety assessment process, help to establish consumer confidence in the regulatory process and convince investors there is a future for agro-food biotechnology in Europe”.

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