BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe faces a major overhaul in the way it deals with genetically modified (GM) crops, after the European Commission sparked controversy with new plans to circumvent its cumbersome legislative review process.
The EU executive wants to let national governments decide whether or not to grow genetically modified crops without a long drawn-out review of the bloc’s current GM legislation, an initial impact assessment seen by Reuters showed.
Details of the plan, which would open the door to widespread GM cultivation in Europe, provoked a furious reaction from environmentalists already angry at the EU executive’s decision to approve the commercial growing of a GM potato in March.
But the plan will be a boost to biotech companies in the EU, where blockages in the current approval system have confined commercial growing to less than 100,000 hectares across the 27-nation bloc.
It could also ease trade tensions between the EU and the United States, which launched a World Trade Organization dispute against the EU in 2003 after countries including Austria and Germany banned the cultivation of an approved GM maize.
The EU executive is hoping to unblock the paralysis in GM crop approvals by giving those countries that want to grow them the freedom to do so, while also sanctioning the current “GM-free” stance of several member states.
Rather than revise the legislation, which would require the agreement of the European Parliament, the Commission will try to make the change “within the existing legislative framework, if possible,” the paper said.
“The Commission appears intent on avoiding any democratic debate with the parliament in order to please the biotech industry and get GM crops into Europe,” said Friends of the Earth campaigner Adrian Bebb.
The proposals — due to be tabled in June — will likely have “a positive impact on biotechnology and seed companies compared to the status quo,” the assessment said.
“There may be a negative impact for non-GM farmers,” it added, referring to the risk of unintentional contamination of conventional farm produce by GM-crops.
The paper outlines several options for implementing the proposal within the existing legislative framework, and makes it clear that a key consideration will be the likely reaction of WTO countries, particularly the U.S.
“Biotechnology is an important topic of transatlantic dialogue and therefore relations with the U.S. ... need to be taken into consideration when developing this initiative, irrespective of the options,” the assessment said.
The first and most likely option set out in the paper is that approval for GM cultivation requests would continue to be granted at EU level following a safety assessment, but countries would then decide individually whether to grow them or not.
When it comes to how member states will justify their decision whether or not to cultivate, one option is to revise non-legislative EU guidelines on the “co-existence” of GM and non-GM crops, according to the paper.
This would allow countries to specify a 5 or 10 kilometer “buffer zone” between GM and non-GM fields, which would effectively make cultivation of GM crops impossible in practice.
Another option in the paper is to allow countries to cite “socio-economic” factors as the basis for their decisions, such as protecting organic production, increasing farmers’ yields, or reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides.
Editing by Pete Harrison and James Jukwey