Jean Monnet Building, Luxembourg

Will GMO-skeptical EU member states drop their opposition now that they’re out?

The European Commission is trying to authorize the cultivation of two GM maize varieties, 1507 and Bt11, and to re-authorize MON810, the only GMO currently grown in Europe, according to leaked draft proposals seen by GMWatch. The EU member states are likely to vote on the proposals on 16 November.
The proposed authorizations would only apply in 9 out of 28 EU countries and three regions (England in the UK and Flanders and the Brussels region in Belgium). This is because the remaining 19 governments have made use of the new opt-out mechanism to ban cultivation of GM crops.

It seems probable that the Commission hopes that GMO-skeptical governments will drop their opposition now that their territories are not covered.  
The three GM crops are not of interest to the developer companies in themselves – they are outdated. In the US they appear to be only offered as part of stacked trait GM crops. It therefore looks probable that they may be intended to wedge open the door to further GM crops.

The reason the Commission has not authorized GM maize 1507 already is almost certainly the massive opposition its previous proposal to do so drew in 2014.  
The Commission’s timing in coming up with this plan soon after the Brexit vote seems foolhardy. The GMO authorizations, if they happen, would bring to the fore everything that people dislike about the EU – that it is undemocratic, out of touch with its citizens and steered by corporate interests.

Commission wants to overhaul GMO authorization procedure

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker vowed in 2014 to make the GMO authorization system more democratic. Thus far, he has failed to do so. But a recent release by the Commission shows that it may finally reconsider the authorization procedure for sensitive products such as GMOs and pesticides.

According to a written version of Juncker’s State of the Union speech to the European Parliament released by the Commission, the aim is "to ensure that the Commission is not alone in assuming responsibility to act where member states cannot give an Opinion".

Juncker is quoted as saying, "It is not right that when EU countries cannot decide among themselves whether or not to ban the use of glyphosate in herbicides, the Commission is forced by Parliament and Council to take a decision. So we will change those rules – because that is not democracy."

In the case of glyphosate, the Commission granted a temporary extension to glyphosate’s licence pending the decision of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) on the substance’s carcinogenicity.

If the Commission is serious about not wanting to take the hit for approving contentious and potentially harmful GMOs and pesticides without the backing of a qualified majority of member states, it must not approve the three GM maize varieties for cultivation.

Which GM crops does the Commission want to authorize?

Monsanto’s MON810, DuPont Pioneer’s 1507 and Syngenta’s Bt11 have been engineered to produce Bt insecticidal toxins. The Bt toxins are meant to kill specific insect pests, such as the European corn borer, but impacts are wider.

Two of the crops, 1507 and Bt11, are also genetically modified to tolerate being sprayed with glufosinate ammonium, a potent herbicide. Glufosinate is classified as toxic for reproduction and its use has been restricted in the EU since 2013 because of concerns about its toxicity to mammals. In the past, the cultivation of herbicide-tolerant GM crops has led to increased use of the associated herbicides.

Monsanto’s MON810 was authorized in 1998. It is grown in five EU countries (Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania) on about 130,000 ha, representing just over 1% of the total maize cropping area in Europe.

Risks to non-targets, including mammals

The Bt toxins produced by these GM crops are likely to harm not only the target pests but also non-target organisms such as butterflies, ladybirds, aquatic insects, and even mammals.

In the case of 1507, harm to butterflies and moths could be “substantial”, according to modelling by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

In countries where Bt crops are grown, insect pests have become resistant to the toxins, resulting in “substantial economic losses for farmers”, according to a recent review of GM crops by the US National Academies of Science.

The Commission believes these risks can be managed if “refuge areas” and “isolation distances from protected habitats” are prescribed. However, compliance with mandated refuge areas has been poor and thus refuges are unlikely to be effective.

Crucial question

The crucial question is whether GMO-skeptical EU member states will maintain their refusal to support the cultivation of GMOs now that they can opt out of growing them. Political pressure must be kept up on the governments of these countries to continue to oppose cultivation at the EU level.

If these countries do not want GMOs growing in their own backyards, they should not allow them to be grown in any member state – not least because ecological problems don't recognize national frontiers.