EU set to reopen GM debate (11/4/2006)

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EU set to reopen GM debate
Brian Johnson
EU Politix, 11 April 2006

Revision of the EU's controversial GM approvals system will be at the centre of a European commission "orientation debate" on biotech policy on Wednesday.

A heated discussion is expected, as the EU executive holds its first major policy discussion on biotech since taking office in 2004.

The main topic will be proposals, presented in an "information note" by Brussels environment and public health chiefs, Stavros Dimas and Markos Kyprianou, to overhaul the authorisation procedures used to place GM products on EU markets.

But the commission's pro GM camp, led by vice president Gunter Verheugen are likely to argue against further delays on biotech, using the threat of WTO action to ward off safety concerns.

Scientific validity

Doubts over the credibility of EU risk assessment procedures used to determine whether a GM product is safe, have dogged the authorisation process for some time.

EU environment ministers, prompted by the current EU presidency holders, Austria, called for greater transparency in the approvals process during a meeting in March.

A number of member states also called into question the validity of risk assessment procedures used by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The EFSA has come under fire from member states and Green NGOs for failing to fully take account of national safety concerns.

Last week during a Vienna conference on GM coexistence, environment commissioner Stavros Dimas broke Brussels ranks by unleashing further criticism on the troubled Parma based agency.

Dimas accused the EFSA of depending too much on information supplied by the biotech industry, when making risk assessments.

"There is the question of whether scientific opinions relied solely on information supplied by companies which produce GMOs," said Dimas.

"The EFSA cannot deliver a sound scientific opinion on GMOs. They only examine short term effects and they do not take into account the opinions of member states."

Decision deadlock

Dimas and Kyprianou will present a series of possible improvements to the scientific basis of the approvals process, which they believe could help break the deadlock of a system that continues to plague both EU member states and Brussels.

National ministers consistently fail to reach a unanimous result on GM products put to them for approval, and this failure to reach an agreement, for or against a new GM approval, invokes a 'comitology' procedure, passing the decision to the commission.

Brussels follows the advice of EFSA - which has so far always pronounced that GM products are safe - and rubber stamps approvals.

"Many member states... expressed discomfort with the way authorisation decisions for GMOs are taken," says the information note.

"These delegations strongly criticised the current comitology procedure and the fact that the commission authorised products against a simple majority of member states."

Predominant positions

This process, it is suggested goes against the spirit of a "predominant position" regularly adopted by member states, when a qualified majority cannot be reached.

The solution, suggest Dimas and Kyprianou in the information note, would be to build up more confidence in the GM authorisation system.

"The best course of action would appear to be for the commission to seek to achieve majorities [in council] which will not raise the issue of predominant position by restoring member states' confidence in the system."

Speaking to journalists on Friday, Dimas hinted that changes to the comitology process and council voting procedures allowing for a straight majority vote on GM authorisations are not up for discussion, despite pressure from Vienna.

"What you can change is the confidence and trust on the scientific soundness of decisions," said Dimas.

"If member states are satisfied with the scientific method, it is easier to make decisions. We will try to improve this confidence."


The package of improvements up for debate on Wednesday include improving transparency and consultation between EFSA and national scientific bodies.

The proposals also include a call for more detailed justification by EFSA when its opinions overrule member states scientific objections and more emphasis on addressing the longer term effects on the environment of placing GM products on the market.

Dimas infuriated the biotech industry last week with comments on the long term safety of GM crops, flouting the EU's mantra that all authorised GM products are safe.

"Applications for cultivation of GMO products raise a whole new series of possible risks to the environment, notably potential longer term effects that could impact on biodiversity," said Dimas.

"No new GM varieties have as yet been approved under new the regulatory framework. And it is essential that we address such potential risks before granting approvals for cultivation."

The Greek commissioner's comments were seen as a hint that he could use strict regulations contained in a 2001 directive on deliberate release to block approvals for GM crops to be grown in Europe's fields.

Right to redress

The information note also proposes adapting internal rules of procedure or introducing more informal means to allow member states the right to redress on EFSA opinions.

Green NGOs warned that Brussels would be making a grave mistake if it continued to ignore the concerns of member sates.

"The European commission has ignored the failings of its system for far too long, but must now listen to member states and allow for a stringent, transparent and independent risk evaluation of GMOs," said Eric Gall of Greenpeace.

"Nothing in the WTO ruling prevents the commission from supporting strict rules for the authorisation of genetically modified products, including the evaluation of long-term effects on health and the environment," said Friends of the Earth's Helen Holder.

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