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The EU and GM - Will It 'Let GM Crops Flourish' or Stop GM Being Used 'Under Any Pretext'?

01/23/2015 01:25 pm 13:25:24 | Updated 25 March 2015

The European Parliament's decision on GM last week was hailed by the pro-GM campaign in the UK as a great victory. As the recently sacked, pro-GM environment secretary Owen Paterson's main supporter, Matt Ridley, wrote in the Times 'the argument's over - let GM crops flourish', claiming that the EU move was 'a triumph of subtle diplomacy' by Owen Paterson. This is a peculiarly English view of the European decision. In Germany the government is now determined to ban all GM crops: 'Under the new directive, EU member states will now be able to choose to opt-out, restricting or completely banning GMO cultivation within their borders. One of the leading proponents of such a legal ban in Germany is its Ministry of Agriculture, which is led by the Bavarian conservative Christian Social Union (CSU)'. The Environment Ministry also supports a national ban on growing GM crops. A position paper from the Federal Environment Minister is clear that she does not want to leave any backdoors open for genetic engineering saying: 'The GMO law must be changed, so that controversial green genetic engineering cannot be used under any pretext in Germany'.

So Owen Paterson's diplomatic triumph will ensure that Germany, along with Scotland and Wales and most of the EU, go completely non-GM! Still, at least the GM companies like Monsanto must be delighted at the outcome as Owen Paterson's secret diplomacy? Alas no. The GM companies have vigorously opposed this EU political compromise. Monsanto's said in response to the EU decision: "Today the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to let European governments restrict or prohibit cultivation of safe GM crops at national or regional level for non-scientific policy reasons. The proposal now goes back to EU national governments for final approval and is expected, if adopted, to enter into force sometime later this year. We have already commented on this sad piece of legislation many times, and our position remains the same: This is a bad move for Europe. It undermines science, it undermines European farmers, and it raises prices for European consumers". Maybe Paterson's diplomacy was a little too subtle for Monsanto.

Under current European law, GM companies can apply to the European Food Safety Agency to get a GM crop cleared, either for import into the EU after being grown elsewhere, or for the crop itself to be grown in the EU. This is where there has been a stalemate- because the EU, rather than Member States, controls whether GM crops can be grown in Europe. The only way Member States opposed to GM can stop crops from being grown in their territory is to refuse to give European safety approval to any GM crops, regardless of what the European Food Safety Agency recommends, so there has been a blocking vote stopping GM approvals, mainly for potential imports of GM animal feed crops like soya and maize, grown in North and Latin America.

Such has been the desire of some Member States to be able to ban all GM, and the desire of a small number, including England when Owen Paterson was Secretary of State, to grow GM, that now the principles of the single market have been set aside. The political deal will allow Member States opposed to GM to ban GM crops in their own country on grounds which are not restricted to safety, and in return, Member States opposed to GM will not need to block GM crops which are recommended for approval by the European Food Safety Agency, so they can be grown by the few Member States in favour of GM.

What is likely to happen next

First, the European Parliament, the Commission and Council of Ministers will have to agree legislation to implement the compromise. Then, GM crops already approved by the European Food Safety Agency will presumably be reconsidered by Member States and approved. Around 22 out of 27 of the GM crops awaiting approval are not capable of being grown in Europe, and will simply expand the range of varieties of GM soya and GM maize that are already being imported into the EU for use in animal feed. According to the UK Government, there are no GM crops currently awaiting approval which are suitable for cultivation in England, and the soonest any might be submitted to approval is, according to Lord de Mauley (Environment Minister) 'several years away'.

It is at least possible, if not likely, that GM companies that do not want to see their crops banned by major EU farming nations like Germany, France and Italy, on what they see as 'non-scientific' grounds, will take legal action in the European Court to overturn any such bans. It is also possible that the countries in favour of GM that are exporting GM crops to Europe like the USA, Brazil or Argentina, will take a case to the WTO to try and overturn the EU compromise. No one seems too sure whether either the European Court or the WTO will rule against the EU compromise.

The practical implications for the United Kingdom

The governments in Scotland and Wales have reiterated their strongly anti-GM stance, and both are likely to join the majority of EU Member States in taking the opportunity under the new legislation to formally affirm their non-GMO status. If England continues to have a pro-GM government after the election, that government would need to agree coexistence and liability arrangements which would aim to avoid contamination of non-GM (including organic) crops and food, and which might clarify who would be responsible for paying the costs of any such damage. This would take some time, especially if new legislation was needed.

At the last election, the Conservative party promised legislation to enforce clear coexistence rules which would protect organic and non-GM farming. In government, they have dropped that commitment, and if they form the next government, it is likely that they would simply encourage the adoption of a voluntary agreement, based on the one drawn up by the National Farmers Union, GM companies and other pro-GM interests around ten years ago (by a grouping called 'SCIMAC'), which would advise minimum (and indeed minimal) separation distances and not much else. There has been no sign of the current government agreeing that there is a need for any new arrangements to cover compensation for damage. If no new laws are needed, and the new government is really determined to push ahead, then arrangements to grow GM crops in England could be completed this year (what Scotland and Wales will do about cross border GM contamination from England is another unknown at this stage). That still leaves the few years which it might take for any suitable GM crop to be proposed and cleared by the European Food Safety Agency.

Currently, the most likely scenario in England, given a pro-GM government here, would be that a few farmers would eventually grow GM crops of maize for silage or use in anaerobic digestion, or oilseed rape for animal feed or industrial use. In this case no new GM food would enter the food chain. There is no sign of any supermarket or food company suggesting they would be remotely interested in buying GM food crops grown in England, and there are certainly no customers queuing outside English supermarkets demanding GM food. In any event, given that we remain the United Kingdom, supermarkets and food businesses would not want to have to develop separate supply chains for Scotland and Wales which are GM free.

There is also a major question mark over whether any GM company would think it worthwhile developing a GM crop for anywhere in Europe, given that most of the European Union is likely to be non-GM and the market continues to reject GM crops. Even if crops were developed for some part of the EU, with the particular climatic conditions in England, it is generally accepted by farmers that we need varieties suitable for our own land and weather conditions, and it would be hard to justify commercial development of a GM crop only suitable for growing in parts of the UK, with a very uncertain market.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves on

There are strong moves to eliminate GM animal feed in Germany and Austria, and by Carrefour (the second largest food retailer in the world) in France. An attempt in 2014 by German poultry producers to move from non-GM feed to GM was quickly overturned by German supermarkets and food processors (because they found there were plentiful supplies of non-GM soya available from Brazil, despite industry claims to the contrary). In the UK last year, in contrast, poultry joined dairy and other livestock producers in using GM feed - except for those supplying Waitrose.

However, given the trend in Europe away from GM animal feed, it seems at least possible that UK producers will have to drop GM animal feed in response to growing pressure from the public. Then, the most likely GM crops that could eventually be grown in the UK (maize and oilseed rape for animal feed) would have no market, and would not be grown (as milk, eggs or meat from animals fed on those crops would have no market). Maize could still be grown as a fuel crop, which would not enter the food chain, but using land that could be producing food for growing maize for AD plants is wrong whether the crops are GM or not. Parliament's Climate Change Committee has said that AD plants, especially those using maize as a fuel, are not reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

These latest moves in the EU take place against a background of some significant changes in attitude to GM around the world. There is no doubt that far more countries are deciding to ban GM, either completely (Peru joined the growing list earlier this month) or at least to ban growing GM food crops (apart from many European countries, notable additions to this list last year were Russia and China). In India, where it looked for a while as if all cotton would go GM, there has been a significant fight back in some states and to some extent from the federal government at least to ensure that organic cotton production can continue.

However, as has always been the case with GM, the most significant changes are coming in the USA. The continuing campaigning for labelling of GM food in the US market shows no sign of slowing down, even though a number of state-by-state popular ballots to introduce GM labelling have been narrowly defeated by pro-GM forces, as a result of huge expenditure by pro-GM corporations - many millions of dollars in California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. The pro-GM campaign spent $17 million to the pro-labelling's $1 million in Colorado, and $20 million to the pro-labelling's $7 million in Oregon. Vermont has already agreed to compulsory labelling, which is being challenged in the courts by Monsanto, and Hawaii has voted to introduce a temporary ban on all GM crops (despite $8 million being spent there by Monsanto and other opponents of the ban). Sales of food with the non-GMO label are still growing rapidly in the US, and the American organic market is growing in double figures. American farmers are reported to be returning to non-GM seeds, because of the well documented problems of resistant insects and super weeds, the high cost of GM seeds, lower yields of GM crops, and the higher prices available for non-GM crops. Monsanto is reported to be spending at least half of its research budget on non-GM seed development.

Every year, organic sales are growing around the world, still in double figures in most major European markets, with even higher rates of growth in countries like Brazil and China. In the medium-term, continued growth in organic sales is the best defence against the introduction and growth of GM crops and GM food. As Mark Price, CEO of Waitrose, has said, GM is one-in, all-in technology, and as organic becomes a more significant financial force in agriculture, so its power to stop GM gets stronger. Finally, it is worth noting that research into the health risks of GM crops and of both Roundup and glyphosate continues, and the GM industry still faces the possibility of a fatal blow from new scientific evidence, confirming what many studies have already suggested, namely that GM food poses significant risks to human health.