Greens accuse Commission of snubbing them at GM hearing (8/5/2003)

8 May 2003

Greens accuse Commission of snubbing them at GM hearing

By Karen Carstens
The Economist, Volume 9 Number 16
1 May 2003

GREEN MEPs and activists claim they were snubbed at talks held by the European Commission on how to regulate the 'coexistence' of genetically modified and conventional crops.

Scientists, farmers and policymakers convened at the invitation of Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler and his research counterpart Philippe Busquin for a 'round table' on coexistence how to manage the production of genetically modified (GM) and non-GM crops on the same farm or between neighbouring farms.

The talks focused on two kinds of GM crops maize and oilseed rape that are candidates to be planted across Europe if a de facto moratorium on introducing new GM crops is lifted, as is widely anticipated, by next year. Yet what the Commission hoped would be a low-key technical discussion drew an unexpectedly large crowd of some 300 to 400 participants. The gathering also attracted protests from green groups who said they had been snubbed by the EU's executive arm.

The groups fear that, under coexistence, cross-contamination could occur unless strict measures are imposed on member states by Brussels to keep non-GM crops 'clean'. However, the official policy line coming from Fischler's directorate is that member states should decide how to handle coexistence.

"A subsidiarity-based approach would give member states the possibility to develop appropriate measures according to their national and regional conditions, and with the close participation of farmers and their organisations," Fischler told the conference.

"The Commission will contribute to this process by taking on a coordinating and advisory function and by promoting the exchange of information on best practices," he added. He said the Commission would produce initial guidelines on how to manage coexistence before the summer. But a group of Green-European Free Alliance MEPs and Greens from the German and Austrian national parliaments accused the Commission of "dodging its political responsibility for consumers' freedom of choice".

MEPs Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, Hiltrud Breyer and Jill Evans said: "As with so many other previous meetings organized by the European Commission, this round table seems primarily geared towards paving the way for genetic engineering in European agriculture. It is well established, especially for maize and oilseed rape*that if GM crops are grown on a large scale and without any precautionary measures, then gene flow will occur between fields, farms and across landscapes."

The biotech industry argues that buffer zones and crop rotation have long been practised with conventional crops, and that the Greens' fears are exaggerated.

"There is no question of the safety of these GM crops, they will all have undergone rigorous health and environmental safety assessments before they are authorized for growing," said Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit at biotech industry association EuropaBio. "Coexistence is purely about enabling choice in the marketplace," he added.

"No form of agriculture should be excluded in the EU and no sector of agricultural production should have the power of veto over another." Still, the Green politicians and NGOs, including Friends of the Earth Europe and the European Environmental Bureau, claim that the Commission and biotech industry have repeatedly failed to address a key question in the debate: who pays for the extra measures that need to be taken to avoid cross-contamination? A communication on coexistence published last month by Fischler states that the burden of implementing measures "should fall on the economic suppliers (farmers, seed suppliers, etc.) who intend to gain a benefit from the specific cultivation model they have chosen". So critics fear that non-GM growers would also have to foot the bill.

Another, more complex bone of contention, was only addressed on the sidelines of the conference: how will member states put in place their own measures? The current GM approvals procedure might create a legal hurdle to their doing so. It involves a member state filing an application with the Commission and all other member states to import or cultivate a GM crop. Since January, 19 such applications have been filed.

Once the moratorium has been lifted these could theoretically all be approved. But the process could become very drawn out, even taking up to 500 days, according to one official. A blocking minority of those countries that called for the 1998 moratorium * Denmark, Greece, France, Italy and Luxembourg * could reject another country's GM approvals' application.

To avoid such a legal impasse, EU agriculture experts say there could be two options for regulation of coexistence: drawing up a whole new legally binding regulation, which most NGOs would prefer, or linking coexistence measures to new regulations on the traceability and labelling of GM products or on authorisation and risk assessment procedures expected to enter into force by 2004.

Copyright 2003 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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