Legislation on the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops must be made “watertight” to avoid GM-opposing member states being taken to court, the European Parliament has urged in a European Council debate this week.
A Council compromise reached back in June , which must pass through parliament in order to become law, planned a two-step procedure that allowed member states to partially or totally ban GMO cultivation within their territory via an “opt out measure”, without initially having to provide justification.
However several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) expressed concern about the legal certainty of such an arrangement at a debate with the Italian Presidency of the council yesterday, with one Belgian member fearing it could see big GM firms taking member states to court over losses as a result of an 'unjustified' ban.
Who said what?
Lynn Boylan, Irish MEP: “We shouldn’t place the burden of proof on member states to negotiate with GM companies. The council text is weak, and has many loopholes. It leaves open the possibility of legal attacks”.
Frédérique Ries, Belgian MEP responsible for steering the legislation through parliament: “The current system, to put it mildly, is deficient.”
Giovanni La Via, environment committee (ENVI) chairman: “[T]he final legislation should leave member states the choice to allow or not such crops on their territory, without facing penalties”.
Tania Venturelli, Italian presidency of the Council: “This file is a priority for the Italian Presidency, and we hope to conclude before the end of the year.”
Elisabeth Köstinger, Austrian MEP: “[T]here is an increasingly vehement voice in public opinion that will not be satisfied”.
Gilles Pargneaux, French MEP: “We need a clear list of reasons that will prevent any questioning, and a system for liabilities and damages for any problems arising from cultivation.”
Bart Staes, Belgian MEP: “We should not allow for member states to be taken to court by GM producers.”
Éric Poudelet, director at European Commission: “‘Phase one’ wasn’t in our original proposal”.
MEP and environment committee chairman Giovanni La Via welcomed the council’s “long needed” move forward on the legislation, but added: “We can’t accept to see a lack of regulation, leading to a situation where member states are being taken to court because they oppose GMOs. We would need to work a lot on some details of the file, but the final legislation should leave member states the choice to allow or not such crops on their territory, without facing penalties – and we want to make sure that the final text is crystal clear on this point.”
One MEP called the proposals “deficient”, while another warned, “there is an increasingly vehement voice in public opinion that will not be satisfied” by the compromise.
Meanwhile director of the Commission Éric Poudelet said ‘phase one’ - which covers GM growing zones - was not in its original proposals but was introduced to “unblock the situation in Council”.
“It aims to clarify things between two stakeholders in a courteous manner. The European Commission does not intend to be a negotiator, but a facilitator in this process.”
A second draft will be discussed on October 9 and voted on November 5/6, with a final agreement anticipated by the end of the year.
A ‘watered down’ solution
Frédérique Ries, the Belgian MEP responsible for steering the legislation through parliament, said: “The current system, to put it mildly, is deficient.”
She added that the parliament’s position voted in 2011 had been changed and “watered down” by the European Council, referencing in particular the addition of the text's ‘phase one’.
“How can it be compatible with the primary objective of the text – to allow member states to ban GMOs if they wish? Some countries which are opposed to GMOs don’t want to have to negotiate with companies,” she said.
Austrian MEP Elisabeth Köstinger, who called the text a “second best solution”, said parliament would now be seeking a, “watertight system of self-determination for the planting of GMOs” and greater clarity on the actual impacts of the ‘phase one’ procedure.
Law suits and health concerns
Belgian Greens MEP Bart Staes said: “Biotech companies are going to be involved in the process. We do not agree with this.”
“The Council text is not legally solid. If we plan for a renationalisation of GM policy, then we have to ensure that concerns about health and biodiversity do not get lost.”
Irish MEP Lynn Boylan said the burden of proof for these concerns should not fall on the member states, adding the issue of GM cross contamination had been neglected. “The council text is weak, and has many loopholes. It leaves open the possibility of legal attacks. […] The ability of sovereign member states to make the decision should not be treated lightly”.