More than half of EU countries set to opt out of GM

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

"[Europe is] walking an ethical tightrope by importing ever more GM soy and maize while being unwilling to approve the same traits for cultivation in their own soil,” says Huw Jones.
"[Europe is] walking an ethical tightrope by importing ever more GM soy and maize while being unwilling to approve the same traits for cultivation in their own soil,” says Huw Jones.

Related tags European union

Sixteen countries have requested to opt out of GM cultivation in Europe – but while the Commission says the opt-out clause is necessary for such a complex issue, campaigners are calling it ‘Kafkaesque’ and one scientist warns Europe is walking 'an ethical tightrope'.

Last minute applications to opt out of GM cultivation in Europe are being filed as the 3 October deadline approaches.

On Wednesday, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Germany filed for applications, followed by requests from Italy and Denmark, making a total of 16 countries so far – but the Commission has said this could rise, and the final figure will be confirmed on Monday morning.

The opt out clause has revealed regional splits in attitudes to GMO across Europe, with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the French-speaking part of Belgium requesting to opt out but England and the Flemish region of Belgium staying in.  So far only Latvia and Germany have had their applications approved.

The growing number of countries requesting to opt out has been welcomed by environmental campaigners. Friends of the Earth Europe campaigner, Mute Schimpf said: “There has never been a clearer signal that GM-crops, and the companies that make them, are not wanted in Europe. The technology is not only risky, it’s redundant. People, and the governments that represent them, are rejecting them outright.”

Meanwhile Commission spokesperson for health and food safety, Enrico Brivio, said the number of opt-out requests confirmed that the Directive provided a necessary legal framework to a complex issue. “It allows member states to listen to the concerns of many European citizens and have the final say on whether or not GMOs can be cultivated on their territory, in order to better take into account their national context,” ​he said, adding that a high and level of safety would be guaranteed throughout the union thanks to a strong risk assessment process.

A ‘Kafkaesque’ situation?

Applications are approved by the Commission, but the biotech companies involved – Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer – can review and oppose the ban, a process that has drawn criticism.

Schimpf said: “It’s Kafkaesque that the companies who profit from GM-crops should be given jurisdiction over democratically-agreed decisions to ban GM-crops. Corporate profits should not be put before people, and the interests of Europe's food and farming sectors. The democratic decision of countries to ban GM-crops must be respected by the biotech industry.”

A Commission spokesperson did not comment when asked if, or under which circumstances, a request to withdraw could be refused. But even if a company opposes a request to opt out, member states can invoke ‘substantial grounds’ for enforcing a ban, such as environment or agricultural reasons.

‘An ethical tightrope’

The opt-out clause has come under fire from some due to the resulting patchwork of GMO and conventional crops that it would create. Earlier this year, Germany’s Bavarian environment minister Ulrike Scharf said: “The flight of pollen does not stop at state borders.”

Huw D. Jones, professor in plant biology and crop science at Rothamsted Research said: “The opt-out clause is a classic compromise that attracts criticism from all sides of the argument. However with appropriate coexistence measures it could work, even on farms that straddle country borders with different attitudes to GMO cultivation.”

He said such measures would need to include appropriate separation distances, management practices and reasonable – but not zero – thresholds for the presence of GMOs in conventional produce.

Jones also pulled up Europe for its inconsistent attitude regarding GM imports: “The EU member states are walking an ethical tightrope by importing ever more GM soy and maize while being unwilling to approve the same traits for cultivation in their own soil.”

But Louise Payton, policy advisor at the Soil Association, said the countries that had chosen to opt out amounted to two thirds of EU arable cropland wanting to go GM free. "This is great news. It means that so far, half of the countries and two thirds of people in the EU are saying they don’t want to make the mistakes seen in the USA, where GM herbicide tolerant crops – the main GM varieties that will be available here – have been locking farmers in to using more and more pesticides." 

Ignoring science and losing freedom?

A spokesperson for Europabio, the European Association for Bioindustries, said the opt-out clause was a stop sign for agriculatural innovation.

“European farmers, many of whom may have been interested in using GM technology in certain regions, would officially lose their freedom to choose that technology and the benefits it offers.”

“Each year the EU imports over 33 million tonnes of genetically modified soya beans, totaling more than 60 kg for each of its 500 million citizens per year. This would tend to indicate that GM [crops] have had and continue to have an important place in European agriculture.”

Meanwhile biotech giant, Monsanto, has accepted Greece and Latvia’s requests but accused them of ignoring science.

The 16 countries to have filed requests so far are Latvia, Greece, Croatia, France, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Lithuania, Belgium (for the region of Wallonia), UK (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), Bulgaria, Cyprus, Italy, Denmark and Germany which has requested a ban except for research purposes.

Once the requests have been transmitted to the companies, they have one month to react. After the 3 October deadline, members states still have the possibility to adopt national opt out measures, according to the directive 2015/412.

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