GM crops to be fast-tracked in UK following EU vote
GM crops look set to be brought to the UK market speedily after MEPs approve new legislation allowing countries to choose whether to grow the crops, in a rubber-stamping vote on Tuesday (13 January).
The new law, which comes into force this spring, will allow states to cultivate GM crops that have already been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). According to Sarah Cundy, the UK's head of GM policy and regulation, that could happen quickly.
"We now expect to see GM maize 1507 get its final authorisation in the near future, and new applications should be approved much more quickly than has been the case until now," Cundy said in an email to the National Farmers Union, which the Guardian has seen.
Earlier this year, EU ministers voted to allow cultivation of DuPont Pioneer's 'Supercorn', also known as GM Maize 1507, after Efsa approved it despite concerns about the effects it might have on beneficial insects such as butterflies and moths. Efsa recommended addressing these with risk mitigation measures such as crop rotation and field buffer zones.
Another leaked email from the environment minister Lord de Mauley promises "pragmatic rules" for separating GM and non-GM crops to allow product labelling, and does not foresee commercial planting of crops "for at least a few years".
Ecologists see this as a tacit nod for GM cultivation in the 2017 planting season if the Conservatives win the next election, although the Labour party also views biotechnology as a way to strengthen the UK's food chain and reduce environmental damage, if it has public support.
A spokeswoman for the UK's Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs played down the chances of many new GM applications winning early assent as, apart from GM 1507, eight of those in the pipeline were for maize strains that are resistant to pests not found in the UK.
Environmentalists though were sceptical. "This agreement is not all it seems," Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for south-east England told the Guardian. "It's a good thing that EU countries will have new powers to ban GMOs. However, what this means in reality for the UK is more GMOs not less. This is because our pro-GM government will now be able to give the go-ahead to more authorisations."
The new law does allow governments to opt out of GM cultivation either by negotiating with the firms for a territorial exclusion, which the companies may refuse, or by imposing national bans on single crops - which the companies can challenge.
In practice, environmentalists fear that countries wishing to ban GM will face protracted national court cases that graduate to the European court of justice and afford corporate protagonists equal or greater rights to national governments.
"General environmental policy objectives can be used to justify a ban under the amended directive, but they must be distinct from the environmental impacts that Efsa has already looked at," said Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's agriculture policy director. "This means that EU states may face a de facto prohibition on citing environmental impact assessments they have themselves conducted in their own territories."
Several European countries led by France and Hungary have GM bans in place, but others such as Britain and Spain have vocally supported the technology, with the UK abstaining from the final vote because of its provisions for GM embargoes.
"We are concerned that these national bans may deter new applications from coming forward," Cundy said in her email. "We feel that the deal's mandatory co-existence measures on borders between those member states who are cultivating GM crops and those that are not are too restrictive."
The UK, however, has not cultivated GM maize.