In a potentially risky gamble to break an EU impasse over the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) which has lasted more than a decade, the European Commission on Tuesday (13 July) proposed a plan that both helps anti-GMO member states to ban them and lets those countries that favour the technology to move full-speed ahead with commercial planting.
Until March this year when the new commission gave the green light to a GM potato variety produced by German chemical and agribusiness giant BASF (BASFY), sparking vociferous controversy across the bloc, no new GM crops had been approved in the EU since some Monsanto (MON) maize in 1998.
The EU is split almost down the middle on this most divisive of agricultural topics. No side is able to mount a majority in the Council of Ministers. This makes no one happy, turning anti-GMO countries into the target of Brussels – and US and WTO – ire, and frustrating the ability of pro-GMO countries to fully develop their agricultural sectors in the way their governments wish to.
In a new twist, the commission is betting that if it extends the ability of countries to ban organisms on socio-economic grounds, and, in the longer run, to cultural and ethical grounds on top of the current contamination-only grounds, the anti-GMO states will soften their opposition, potentially a slew of new crop approvals at Brussels level, perhaps as soon as in the coming months.
The gambit is possibly the first ever example of Brussels returning back to member states a power it had earlier taken upon itself.
Even a staunchly pro-GMO state such as Spain, which believes that all of the EU should be able to produce GM products, and the arch-federalist Belgium, which is agnostic on the GMO controversy but thinks the move sets a dangerous precedent of reversing EU integration, have yet to be won over to the idea.
The biotech industry, while applauding the commission for trying to break the impasse with a creative idea and hopeful that it will open new markets for their products, says that the move is in the end "anti-science" and could make it easier to restrict GM farming even in states more open to the technology.
Antonio Villarroel, secretary-general of Antama, a Spanish biotech association said: "We have real fears that the new proposals will make it harder and harder for us to co-exist successfully with other types of farming."
Meanwhile, environmental groups and farmers who oppose GMO technology are frightened that the process will carve new inroads for GM plants and animals and say that any agreement to more authorisations at EU level would be a Faustian pact.
Beyond their desire to see an EU-wide ban on GMO cultivation, they say that the new green light for a looser interpretation of the grounds for a national ban are legally worthless and wide open to court challenges. In effect, the anti-GMO states would be signing off on new GM crops elsewhere in Europe without legally armour-plating their own bans.
In an unusual alliance, both anti-GMO Austria and the pro-GMO Netherlands back the commission's move, however.
Looking at the commission's plan in more detail, the executive will on Tuesday publish new guidelines on what is termed "co-existence" of GM and non-GM agriculture – referring to the possible contamination of non-GM crops by their lab-tweaked cousins – replacing guidance that dates back to 2003.
The EU move, which would extend these grounds for a ban to include socio-economic reasons, is technically-speaking non-legislative and so could be enacted immediately.
Alongside this, the commission will publish legislative proposals to extend the grounds to cultural or ethical reasons. Catholic Poland for example believes that the use of GM seeds encroaches on the sphere of public morality.
In return, the anti-GMO states would embrace "a more positive stance" regarding GMO authorisation at the stage of assessment health and environmental risks at the EU level.