A Genetic Modification of Europe?

After years of resistance, including a WTO dispute in which the Panel of the Dispute Settlement Body of the Organization condemned the European Communities to stop its moratorium on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Europe is finally surrendering.

The ban on GMOs by the European Community was in place from 1998 and 2004. Since then, a new regulatory framework has re-launched the authorization process for GM food and feed. Since the entry into force of the Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed (Regulation No 1829/2003) (establishing a pro-active authorization process for GM food products), a total of 60 applications have been submitted. In response, and upon 15 scientific opinions issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), 7 authorizations have been granted for GM products and another 8 are pending at different stages of the regulatory approval procedure.

None of these authorizations managed to achieve a qualified majority in either the Regulatory Committee or the Council on genetically modified food and feed. The regulatory procedures of the European Commission (described in Article 5.6 of the Comitology Decision) outlines the procedures for the exercise of implementing powers conferred on the European Commission European:

“5.6 The Council may, where appropriate in view of any such position, act by qualified majority on the proposal, within a period to be laid down in each basic instrument but which shall in no case exceed three months from the date of referral to the Council.

If within that period the Council has indicated by qualified majority that it opposes the proposal, the Commission shall re-examine it. It may submit an amended proposal to the Council, re-submit its proposal or present a legislative proposal on the basis of the Treaty.


If on the expiry of that period the Council has neither adopted the proposed implementing act nor indicated its opposition to the proposal for implementing measures, the proposed implementing act shall be adopted by the Commission.”

Each of the authorizations  for GMOs were thus adopted on the basis of the third paragraph of article 5.6. This process does not properly guarantee democratic decision-making, as the Commission is not adequately accountable to citizens, nor is it appointed by a democratic and representative body.

In March 2010, the EC Commission approved a decision aimed at authorizing the production of a genetically-modified potato developed by BASF. This decision sparked a great deal of attention as it was the first to address a seed. All previous decisions had referred to foods and feed, that is, final products, and now the authorization concerns a living modified organism.

GMOs are highly politicized and invoke a range of emotions. Let me summarize the main questions and concerns that often arise around GMO regulation:

  1. Human Health: we do not know much about the long term impacts of GMO crops, food and feed on human health. Moreover, many studies suggest that they tend to facilitate allergies as they incorporate traits of different species in the same organism. In addition, most of the negative results of scientific tests made on GMOs are not made public, as they are conducted by the laboratories of the companies producing them. For an independent assessment see Arpad Pusztai’s research on risks for human health posed by GMOs: http://www.freenetpages.co.uk/hp/a.pusztai/.
  2. Ethics: Humans have always manipulated nature: agriculture itself is a biotechnology but selective plant breeding is a far cry from transgenic manipulation. Are we sure we want this and who has the authority to make such decisions?
  3. Biodiversity and Environment: there is the issue of cross-contamination as GM seeds move from one field to another, modifying crops. In addition, this method of plant production has the effect of standardizing food and reducing diversity. Finally, GMOs are at times designed to contain insecticides (i.e. BT maize from Monsanto) but many of the organisms harmed by these crops play a fundamental role in local ecologies and ecosystems.
  4. Agriculture: the GM model responds to and supports an industrialized and reductionist approach. This approach has proven to have detrimental impacts on localized, traditional and organic farming. Faults in the industrial food systems are increasingly being revealed and many are turning back to non-industrial modes of production to ensure soil quality, food security, animal husbandry, water quality, culture and health.
  5. Socio-economics: GMOs can be “privatized” with patent and royalties to be paid out by users. Thus, products of nature, which are normally common, become private and protected by intellectual property norms.

This very basic and general review is enough to show that there are too many unresolved problems to leave GMOs to market forces and without further public discussion, input, authorization and control. In addition, such regulation must be democratic, transparent and accountable. It is necessary to understand who make decisions around this issue, how they decide and in the name of whom.

So how did the EU originally react to all this? With a very complicated system of authorization.

This system involves Member States and Communitarian Institutions, above all the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA). Application are be filed to the competent authority of a Member State, and then are passed to the EFSA. The EFSA performs a scientific assessment and delivers an independent non-binding opinion on the submitted substance. Finally, the European Commission decides, involving the Council and, eventually, a Committee. The system has positive qualities, for example the involvement of either Member States or EC Institutions. In addition, it admits the application of the precautionary principle. However, it lacks transparency and accountability. Finally, also EFSA has a lot of de facto power as their opinions – even if not formally binding – have a considerable weight in the decision making, most of which depend on the prevailing orientation inside the Authority.

Therefore, Europe is trying to resist GM products, but it is slowly opening up. Moreover, some Member States – like Spain (which currently holds the presidency of the EU)  and Holland – are not vocally opposed to GMOs and are going as far as to push for the opening up of the market to GM food and feed. Since the EU is the main Western power trying to restrict GMOs, we have to ask: How long will the ultimate bulwark against a new Green Revolution that will further change our lives towards agro-industry, standardization, environmental uncertainties, unsafe food, and corporate control of our food systems last?

Posted by Dario Bevilacqua

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