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GMOs in Europe: A Status Report
he regulation of genetically modified organisms in Europe is complex, due in large part to the European Union’s extensive system of checks and balances. It is also complicated by the fact that the EU’s 27 Member States have their own power, however limited, to restrict GMOs within their borders. Additionally, there are pressures from major GM-producing countries, the World Trade Organisation, biotechnology companies and agribusinesses for the EU to allow more sales and cultivation of GM foods. The landscape, therefore, is constantly changing. Here is an overview of the current state of affairs, as of summer 2008.
GMO Marketing and Cultivation in the EU
GMOs have been approved in the European Union for two purposes: marketing and cultivation. The EU has approved about 30 GMOs for marketing, mostly GM soy in animal feed. Only one GMO crop, Monsanto’s MON 810 maize, has been approved for cultivation. EU laws prevent individual Member States from banning the marketing of EU-approved GMOs unless scientific evidence shows they are harmful. If a country imposes a ban contrary to EU policy, it can be brought before the European Court of Justice and be fined. Banning the cultivation of a GMO is even more problematic because farmers are permitted to grow GMOs as long as they comply with rules for co-existence with conventional and organic crops. Environmental groups point out that co-existence is impossible to achieve and that buffer zones between GM and conventional crops are ineffective, especially in countries where small farms predominate, such as Poland and Greece.
Monsanto’s Only Crop in Europe
Cultivation of MON 810, which has been genetically modified to resist certain insect pests, was approved in 1998, and Spain has since taken the lead in producing it. MON 810 represents about 20 percent of the maize grown in Spain, cultivated on 75,100 of the total 110,000 hectares of MON 810 grown in the EU, according to the biotechnology association EuropaBio. The EU’s total doubled from 2006 to 2007 alone. France is second with 21,000 ha but has since banned cultivation of GMO crops. Other countries growing MON 810 include the Czech Republic (5,000 ha), Portugal (4,500), Germany (2,685), Slovakia (900), Romania (350) and Poland (320).1 Environmental groups note that GM crops in Spain have contaminated conventional and organic varieties.
National Bans on GMOs
Several EU countries have introduced bans on marketing and cultivating GMO products, but they are being undermined by pressures from the World Trade Organisation.
has been among the strongest anti-GMO countries in terms of both cultivation and marketing. Austria’s ban on cultivating and marketing MON 810, as well as GM animal feed, has been in place since 1999. In late 2006, the European Commission (EC) began pressuring Austria to lift its ban because it applied to products already being actively sold. EU Environment Ministers backed Austria but it has since become increasingly difficult for Austria to maintain the marketing ban. On 27 May 2008, Austria lifted its ban on EU-approved GM products due to pressure from the EC and the possibility of legal consequences. The ban on cultivation remains intact and large supermarket chains have entered a voluntary agreement not to offer GMO-derived food products. Austria’s livestock industry also prefers not to use MON 810.2 was the first post-Soviet bloc country to ban MON 810, in early 2005. Hungary’s Agriculture Ministry claimed further tests were needed to determine whether MON 810 could contaminate other plants. Two years later the EC tried to challenge Hungary’s ban as contrary to international trade rules. EU Agriculture Ministers have voted three times to uphold the ban.3 , known for its strong opposition to GMOs, notified the EC in 2005 it was banning MON 810 cultivation for the 2005 and 2006 growing seasons. The EC ordered Greece to lift the ban in early 2006, but Greece does not appear ready to allow GMOs. “The environment minister who gives in and allows GMOs into this country will never be minister again,” said Nikos Lappas, head of Greece’s largest farmers’ union. “For farmers, forcing GMOs would be economic suicide, since our market doesn’t want them.”4 first banned MON 810 cultivation in autumn 2007, a short-term ban that ended in February 2008 and was then renewed. The government invoked the “safeguard clause” of the EU’s Deliberate Release Directive, which states any Member State can suspend EU approval of a GMO if it presents new scientific evidence about risks to public health or the environment. Jean-Francois Le Grand, chair of France’s Provisional High Authority on GM Organisms, said the organisation has uncovered
evidence that MON 810 affects insects, earthworms and microorganisms.5 The French Constitutional Court has upheld the ban. introduced a total ban on trade in GM seeds in April 2006 through its seed and plant protection law. The EC challenged the ban on 31 January 2008, declaring that it lacked scientific basis and referring Poland to the European Court of Justice. Also in 2006, the Polish government banned animal feed as of August 2008. A new government has since taken power, however, and says the ban violates EU regulations, which allow EU-approved GM animal feed to be marketed in Europe without restriction. The new government’s compromise is to postpone the ban by four years, though many Polish legal analysts believe this is still against EU law. announced in March 2008 its intention to go GMO-free and invest in organic production. This was a surprising turnaround because Romania had been very open to the biotechnology industry, and before joining the EU had allowed large quantities of GM soy not approved by the EU to be grown. In January 2007 Romania banned cultivation of GM soy to comply with EU regulations.
The EU has 172 large regions and 4,500 smaller zones that have declared themselves to be GMO-free. These include, for example, all cities and villages in Greece and Austria, and 90 percent of all land in Italy. These GMO-free regions are an expression of the will of citizens but are not legally binding. Farmers may still plant approved GM crops as long as they do so legally. In 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled local authorities in Upper Austria’s GM-free region should not limit farmers’ freedom of choice as long as they establish buffer zones.
Member State GMO Preferences
Austria, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg consistently vote against GMO approvals, while Finland, the Netherlands and the UK (which does not grow MON 810) almost always vote in favour. Lately, the Czech Republic and Sweden have also voted for new GM approvals. France voted in favour of Novaritis’ BT maize in 1997-98 but has since turned against GMOs.
Zero Tolerance Policy
To date the EU has maintained a “zero tolerance’ policy towards the introduction of unapproved GMO products, such as GMO-contaminated animal feed and rice. The EU routinely orders contaminated products to be returned to their country of origin. This policy is now under threat because biotechnology companies are playing the food crisis to their advantage by arguing that GMOs can lower food costs. Claims that animal feed with traces of unauthorized GMOs could help lower production costs and consumer prices are countered by NGOs such as Friends
of the Earth Europe, which says, “European livestock farmers need real solutions, not measures that will simply increase the industry’s control and profits.”6 Under pressure from the food industry and the US, EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou is likely to propose lifting the GM contamination threshold from zero to 0.1 percent.7 Although this threshold may seem low, it could allow more unauthorized GMOs through the back door and advance arguments by multinational agribusinesses that GMOs are unavoidable and already entrenched in the EU’s food supply system.
crops if they are not already approved on other markets. The EU can therefore use its import leverage to encourage Brazil, Argentina, China and other countries that supply Europe with animal feed and cereals to produce non-GM varieties and limit their GMO cultivation.9 It is likely these countries would rather produce crops the EU desires rather than force unwanted GMOs onto the EU market.
1 “Powierzchnia upraw roślin GMO w Europie stale się zwiększa,” Niezależnej Agencji Prasowej, 31 October 2007. 2 “Still No GMO Cultivation in Austria,” Co-Extra (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), 22 June 2008. 3 Spongenberg, Helena. “EU States Affirm GMO Ban,” , 22 February 2007. 4
GMOs and the World Trade Organisation
The EU had approved 18 GM products for marketing until June 1999, when the European Council passed a moratorium on new GMO approvals. In response, the United States, Canada and Argentina in May 2003 filed a complaint with the World Trade Organisation’s Dispute Settlement Body. The WTO ruled in November 2006 that the EU breached marketing commitments for 21 products from 1998-2004, including GM rapeseed, maize and cotton. It also ruled that national GMO bans approved by the EC violated trade rules and were unjustified. At the same time, however, the WTO rejected claims that the EU’s GMO rules were illegal and refused to rule on the overarching issue of whether genetically modified foods are safe.8
Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Biotech Foods Tears Rifts in Europe,” , 6 June 2006.
Bowden, Rich. “France Bans Monsanto Strain of GM Corn,” , 11 February 2008.
6 Bounds, Andrew. “Fresh Fight Looms Over Europe GM Crops,” , 24 June 2008. 7 8 9
Ibid. “EU Accepts Trade Ruling on GMOs,” EurActiv, 22 November 2006.
“EU Animal Feed Imports and GMO Policy,” Coordination Paysanne Européenne, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, May 2008.
GMO Approval Standards in the EU and Elsewhere
According to Friends of the Earth, it takes about 30 months for new GMOs to be authorised in the EU. This is twice as long as the U.S. government takes. Contrary to popular belief, Brazil and Argentina take longer than the EU and the United States to commercialize new GM crops. Both countries are reluctant to approve new GM
For more information: Food & Water Europe E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.foodandwatereurope.org Tel: Eve Mitchell, +32(0)28931045 Copyright © 2008 Food & Water Europe
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