MEPs vote against specific liability scheme for GMOs

A European Parliament vote on the release of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment has pleased the biotechnology industry. Environmentalists have given the vote a mixed report card.

MEPs were voting on their second reading of a draft directive on the deliberate release into the environment of GMOs. Their decisions bring them closer in line with the Council of Ministers and signal that the EU may be closer to re-starting its programme of approving GM seed varieties for commercial growing. The next step in the process will be the formation of a ‘conciliation group’ that will draft a final version of the directive. Both the Parliament and the Council of Ministers will then be asked to vote in favour or against the final version.

“I think that the chances that either will say no are very slim,” Dr Martin Rocholl, Friends of the Earth International’s political co-ordinator told edie. Rocholl believes that the only seriously contentious issue is Parliament’s demand that GM crop locations be made available to the public.

A crucial win for the biotechnology industry was the MEPs’ decision not to back a separate civil liability scheme for GMOs. Instead, the European Commission has been asked to ensure that its comprehensive environmental liability rules (seerelated story) be presented to Parliament no later than the end of 2001.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) Europe criticised Parliament for failing to support a proposal for a liability scheme specifically designed for GMOs. “European consumers should know that whenever they buy GMO products, they are dealing with companies which don’t accept responsibility for potential damage caused by their products,” said Dan Leskien, a FoE legal advisor.

But the biotechnology industry had argued that no other industry has been subject to a liability system of its own. Another nail in the coffin of a GMO-specific liability system was EC Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström’s preference for an environmental liability directive covering all industries.

MEPs also voted on a ban on the gene transfer from GM plants to non-GM plants. They rejected the ban and added, instead, a stipulation that “every form of effect on the environment caused by gene-transfer … is accurately assessed”. FoE said that “Parliament has only stated the obvious which is a standard requirement under the current risk assessment” procedures.

An immediate ban on the use of antibiotic-resistant markers in GM varieties was ruled out, but MEPs voted in favour of a phase-out of the markers by 2005.

Medical experts and others, including attendees at GM food safety conference organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (see story in the World section of this edition of edie news), believe that antibiotic markers pose a potential threat to human and animal health (see related story) – their resistance could transfer to domesticated animals and humans, thus compounding the already serious problem of antibiotic resistance.

Other changes to the directive include the requirement that GMO licenses be renewed every 10 years, that the location of GM crops be publicly available and that risk assessments should include “accumulated long-term effects associated with granting consent”.

Parliament defines accumulated long-term effects as impacts on “natural flora, other crops, soil fertility, soil degradation of organic material, the food chain, biological diversity, human health, and resistance problems in relation to antibiotics”.

FoE insists that GM crop locations must be publicly registered, not to allow environmental activists to vandalise crops – as cynics have suggested – but to provide farmers with information about the crops being grown nearby. With gene transfer from GM plants a certainty, FoE believes that the least the EU can do is make sure that conventional and organic farmers have access to information about the location of GM crops so that they can make changes to their crop locations if they wish.

MEPs also voted in favour of tighter regulations for product labelling. Instead of products carrying a label which says “may contain GMOs”, Parliament voted in favour of labels carrying a statement saying “this product contains or consists of GMOs”.

It is the changes to risk assessment procedure and labelling that have won praise from environmentalists. “Under the revised directive, not just direct and immediate effects of GMOs on the environment and human health will have to be assessed, but risk assessment will also have to cover indirect and delayed effects,” says Rocholl.

EuropaBio, representing the European biotechnology industry, admitted that “the numerous articles and amendments deserves some scrutiny” but that overall “it will hopefully help to end the deadlock in which the plant biotechnology industry has found itself in for far too long”.

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