Last updated 17/02/2015
Amid conflicting claims about a new EU ‘opt-out’ law, GM campaigners say voicing concerns is now more important than ever. Ruth Strange unpicks the confusion.
On the face of it, a new European Directive that allows member states to ban cultivation of EUapproved genetically modified crops on their territories could seem a good thing. Some say it is a devolution of power, but Greenpeace have called it a ‘disgraceful EU stitch-up’. As the news broke on January 13th, campaigners responded with images of a Trojan horse and a noose.
Opening the door to GM
The GM industry, along with pro-GM governments including the UK, Spain and the Netherlands, have struggled for years to get GM crops approved in Europe. With widespread public scepticism, scientific controversy and a majority of EU member states voting in opposition, only one plant (Monsanto’s MON810 maize – mostly grown in Spain) is currently approved for commercial cultivation in Europe. In May 2014, UK genetics watchdog Genewatch published a dossier of Freedom of Information requests showing collusion between GM companies and the UK government leading up to the EU vote.
In November 2014, the European Parliament Environment Committee voted to include some strong safeguards, but most of these were removed in December when the draft law went through a ‘Trialogue’ process for amendment. In January 2015, the law was passed with a majority of 480 to 159. EUwide agreement will no longer be needed for crops that have been approved by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA). The Ecologist has reported that “This so called ‘opt-out’ regulation is really an ‘opt-in’ measure, as its effect would be to breach the existing de facto moratorium on GMOs, and free up countries such as the UK which want to press ahead with the cultivation of GM crops”.1
Defences are weak
Although some say the law allows countries a wider range of grounds than before on which to ban GM crops, others point out that arguements cannot conflict with EFSA’s environmental risk assessment, and it may be a struggle to make a strong enough legal case. Furthermore, bans can be challenged by GM companies. The potential for costly legal battles is in itself a deterrent, made stronger by the threat of private arbitration tribunals if TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) or similar trade deals go ahead. The European Food Standards Authority have been accused of bias for basing their risk assessments of proposed GM crops on data provided by the GM companies, who have routinely obstructed independent research into their results.2
A 2008 ‘Petition To The European Parliament: EFSA Violates EU Consumers’ Rights’ from pressure group GM Free Cymru (Wales) has been kept ‘alive’ by MEPs because its concerns have still not been satisfactorily dealt with. There have also been allegations of corruption in EFSA’s reapproval process for the herbicide glyphosate, formulations of which are widely used with GM crops.3 “This directive offers no meaningful protection to people who want to make informed choices about what they are eating or to farmers who want to protect their fields from the superweeds and biodiversity loss associated with the kind of GM crops likely to be heading our way. There are no EU-wide mandatory measures to prevent contamination within an individual member state and no rules governing liability. That means it’s down to the UK Government to protect our right to grow and eat GM Free.” says the director of GM Freeze, the UK umbrella campaign for those concerned about the impacts of genetic modification in food and farming.
Who else is campaigning on this?
Campaign group Beyond GM published a ‘Letter from America’ in November 2014 from concerned US citizens warning the UK not to allow the spread of GMOs as has happened in the USA. They list a wide range of concerns including an increase in pesticide use; a resulting growth of resistant superweeds and bugs, and damage to the soil and potentially human health; the contamination of GM-free food; and the corporate control of seeds and the wider food system, undermining the development of sustainable alternatives.
This view is in stark contrast to BBC reporting on the day the law passed, with Science Editor David Shukman presenting a picture on the Ten O’clock News that it brings us freedom and choice. Beyond GM are encouraging people to write to their MPs in their own words. They are also running a visual petition, GM Free ME (see beyond-gm.org). See also: Greens/EFA for a GMO-free Europe and GM Freeze
(websites accessed 14.1.15)