EU exec to press ahead with GM crop approvals

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe’s health and consumer chief John Dalli has pledged to continue approving genetically modified (GM) crops while EU states debate a proposal to let them decide whether to grow or ban the controversial technology.

“The process will go on, the process is going on. We are not going to wait,” Dalli said in an interview with Reuters.

The proposals announced by the European Commission in July would allow France and others to keep their existing “safeguard” bans on growing GM crops, while countries such as Spain and Portugal would be free to press on with commercial GM planting.

European Union farm ministers will discuss the plans on September 27, but France, Germany and Spain have already said the proposals would undermine the 27-nation bloc’s common policy on GM crops -- an argument Dalli said he struggled to understand.

“We are putting into effect the means through which, in a much easier and more effective way, France can achieve what it tried to with its safeguard measures, so this is what I cannot sometimes comprehend,” he said.

The Maltese commissioner said he could accept some changes to the proposals if that would win the majority support of EU governments and lawmakers, needed for the plans to become law.

But he ruled out a full review of the EU’s legislation on GM crops, saying he would rather stick with the current system that has seen just two GM crops approved for EU cultivation in 12 years if an agreement proves elusive.

In the meantime, the Commission will continue to use its power to unilaterally authorize crops for cultivation and import whenever governments fail to reach a decision, he said.

The bloc’s executive will submit a long-delayed decision to renew the EU authorization for Monsanto’s 810 maize -- Europe’s most widely grown GM crop -- to member states by the end of the year, he added.

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Dalli’s cultivation proposals followed his decision in February to approve the GM “Amflora” potato developed by Germany’s BASF.

That led environmentalists to accuse him of pursuing a pro-GM agenda set by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, but the former Maltese finance minister said the decisions were part of a wider strategy for Europe.

“GMOs or non-GMOs don’t excite me all that much -- it’s a question of innovation. If Europe is going to say ‘no’ to anything that is new, then we are condemned to backwaters,” he said.

But Dalli’s mantra of “responsible innovation” was at odds with BASF’s recent contamination of a field of its Amflora potatoes in Sweden with an unapproved GM potato variety known as “Amadea.”

He said the company’s error -- which the Commission is investigating -- had upset him, and that similar incidents would not be tolerated in future.

“I am pushing to make sure that we also monitor the controls of the various companies operating in this area, in terms of how able they are to manage their production flows,” he said.


Dalli confirmed that in the coming weeks the Commission would propose a “technical solution” to the EU’s zero tolerance policy on traces of unapproved GMOs in animal feed imports to the bloc.

Soy imports from the United States came to a virtual standstill in August 2009 after traces of unapproved GMOs were found in shipments, sparking supply concerns for EU livestock farmers dependent on imported soy protein.

The proposal will harmonize tests carried out by customs authorities, and is expected to introduce a 0.3 percent margin of error for any unapproved GMOs found in shipments, provided an EU approval for the variety is already pending.

“For food, the zero tolerance rule will remain in place as far as raw materials for food production go,” Dalli stressed.

As the change would only require rubber-stamping by EU governments and lawmakers it could enter force within months.

By contrast, discussions on the GM crop cultivation proposals could drag on for up to two years, assuming a way is found to overcome government opposition to the plans.

Editing by William Hardy