|Austria to reopen EU GM debate / Concerns over EFSA (2/3/2006)|
1.Austria to reopen EU GM debate
EXCERPTS: "Washington appears to believe that GMOs that are considered to be safe in the US should de facto be deemed to be safe for the rest of the world.
However and here I believe we can all wholeheartedly agree, I think that a sovereign body like the EU and its member states, or indeed any country in the world, has the right to enact its own regulations on the food that its citizens eat." - from an article by Austria's agriculture and environment minister, Joseph Proell (item 2)
Vienna also has concerns with the role of the EFSA. The European food watchdog has been accused of ignoring scientific uncertainties on GM and of being biased towards the biotech industry. (item 1)
1.Austria to reopen EU GM debate
The Austrian EU presidency is set to rekindle a heated debate on biotech food by reopening discussions on Europe's controversial GM approvals process.
Writing in the latest issue of Parliament Magazine, Austrian agriculture and environment minister, Joseph Proell said he will ask national environment ministers meeting in Brussels on March 9 to take another look at the EU's GM authorisation procedures.
"The Austrian presidency will initiate another debate on the longstanding practice of approving GMOs when no qualified majority is reached [by national ministers]," said Proell.
EU capitals consistently fail to reach a qualified majority agreement on new GM crop approvals, leaving the European commission to rubber stamp authorisations through a default "comitology" procedure.
"These procedural powers of the commission are far from ideal," said Proell.
The Austrian said he will field two questions to Europe's environment ministers, one on the way the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) deals with conflicting advice on GMOs and the second on changing the GM approvals process to accommodate a straight majority decision.
Austria heads a group of EU member states including Greece and Luxembourg that vehemently oppose GM crops, regularly blocking authorisations.
Vienna also has concerns with the role of the EFSA. The European food watchdog has been accused of ignoring scientific uncertainties on GM and of being biased towards the biotech industry.
Proell argues that European consumers have legitimate concerns over GM products, which Vienna takes "very seriously."
"Europeans have remained very sceptical about whether GMOs are harmless, notably when it comes to growing GM crops alongside conventional ones," said Proell.
The Austrian EU presidency and the commission are holding a conference on GM coexistence in April to explore the issues.
"Given the fact that EU member states are currently progressing in their development of coexistence rules, I believe it is the right time to discuss these issues together and try to find workable solutions at a European level for all stakeholders involved," said Proell.
But Simon Barber, director of plant biotechnology at pro GM lobby Europabio, said he was concerned that Austria was using its EU presidency as an opportunity to push what he called "anti technology policy."
"If you look at some of the statements minister Proell has made, it's clear he doesn't want anybody to use [GM] technology," said Barber.
"Coexistence suggests people are going to be able to choose, to have to get on with each other, but I don't see a really objective plan to allow people to choose."
But Eric Gall of Greenpeace said a debate was urgently needed.
"Minister Proell raises crucial points about the lack of implementation of the EU's system. It remains untransparent, undemocratic and the EFSA has simply ignored its legal requirements to assess the long term effects of GMOs," said Gall.
Gall said that he expected the commission to use the coexistence conference to justify its current position.
"That position is to do nothing." The commission approves GMOs, but then leaves farmers to deal with the consequences. By refusing to change its position on cross-contamination the commission is dodging its responsibilities." said Gall.
"It's time that the commission listened to the concerns of citizens and governments."
2.GM debate: Question Time
[This article by by the Austrian agriculture and environment minister, Joseph Proell, originally appeared in the February 20 edition of Parliament Magazine]
Austria takes consumer concerns about GM food very seriously argues Josef Proell as he outlines how Vienna will tackle this "very emotive subject."
When people talk about GMOs one thing usually becomes clear very soon; it's a very controversial subject.
Positions range from one extreme, where GMOs are described as "Frankenstein foods" to the other where some believe they are above infrastructure or distribution solutions in beating world hunger.
Earlier this month another piece in this controversial picture has been added to the jigsaw, when the GMO panel of the WTO issued its confidential interim report to the European commission.
And confidential or not it was quickly leaked. Now parties are invited to make their views on the interim report known to the panel in good time, ahead of the final report expected in April.
In the EU's case this will be done by the European commission.
The report has 1050 pages of complex findings and is the longest panel report ever produced in a WTO dispute.
Due to the very limited scope of the WTO case, nothing in the report obliges the EU, to my knowledge, to modify our regulatory framework on GMO approvals.
And let's make things quite clear; the US and the other parties explicitly said that it did not challenge the EU's regulatory framework.
The regulatory framework, which was negotiated between council and the European parliament, provides for strict monitoring of GM products after their initial release to market through the implementation of mandatory labelling and traceability rules.
I, and here I think nobody in Europe would contest me, believe that such regulatory oversight is of the utmost importance in addressing any potential failure of the regulatory system, such as those experienced in the US in the past when non-approved GMOs such as Starlink GM maize, or Bt 10 GM maize entered the US food chain.
So what are Washington's real concerns with the EU's system?
The US appears not to like the EU's authorization regime, which it considers to be too stringent, simply because it takes longer to approve a GMO in Europe than in the US.
Washington appears to believe that GMOs that are considered to be safe in the US should de facto be deemed to be safe for the rest of the world.
However and here I believe we can all wholeheartedly agree, I think that a sovereign body like the EU and its member states, or indeed any country in the world, has the right to enact its own regulations on the food that its citizens eat.
A study produced for the International Food Information Council [a highly suspect body with astoundingly biased questionnaires] last year showed that less than 0.5 per cent of US consumers identified food biotechnology as a safety concern.
In contrast, a Eurobarometer opinion poll across the EU 25 found that 54 per cent considered GM food to be dangerous.
I think it is of great importance, especially after the very clear and loudly raised concerns of European citizens, that we have to, and here all political institutions of the EU are facing a challenge to deliver on, take these concerns very seriously.
Due to consumer concerns large retailers in Europe, have up to now, been very reluctant to stock GMO products on their shelves.
Food that was available, notably tomato puree sold in the UK by the Sainsbury and Safeway chains in 1996, was subsequently removed from the shelves amid a wider food safety debate.
One European supermarket executive said recently that it would be "almost commercial suicide" to sell GM food.
Europeans have remained very sceptical about whether GMOs are harmless, notably when it comes to growing GM crops alongside conventional ones, where strains can cross-pollinate.
Therefore the Austrian EU presidency has decided together with the European commission to hold a significant conference with all stakeholders involved on the issue of "Coexistence - Freedom of Choice" on April 4-6 in Vienna.
This conference should bring together policy makers, scientists, and a broad range of stakeholders, such as farmers and consumer associations, NGOs, seed producers, importers, food and feed processors and more.
We are expecting around 700 participants for this conference where the parliament is of course warmly invited to participate.
In the coming weeks the commission will present a report on coexistence measures in the individual member states both to the European council and parliament.
It will be on that basis that we as a presidency wish to hold a broad and objective debate on this very emotive subject.
Given the fact that EU member states are currently progressing in their development of coexistence rules, I believe it is the right time to discuss these issues together and try to find workable solutions at a European level for all stakeholders involved.
Apart from the issue of coexistence between conventional, organic and GM crops the Austrian presidency will initiate another debate on the longstanding practice of approving GMOs when no qualified majority in favour or against is reached in the council.
These procedural powers of the commission are far from ideal.
During the environment council in March we will therefore submit two questions to ministers for debate.
One will concern current procedures with the EFSA and the question of whether we should enhance collaboration between national bodies and the European Food Agency.
The other will raise the question of whether it would not be more suitable to change the current practice of approval by the commission if there is a simple majority against the proposal.