New rules for GM

C&I Issue 4, 2015

A new law on GM crop cultivation in the EU comes into force in April 2015, potentially clearing the way for a wave of market authorisations after years of deadlock. There are eight GM crops waiting for approval for cultivation.

For the first time, member states can opt-out from the EU-wide approval system. Under the old rules, member states could provisionally ban or restrict a GM crop only if they had new evidence that it constituted a risk to human health or the environment, or in the case of an emergency. Now countries can ban an EU-approved crop in their territories on grounds such as socio-economic reasons, land use and town planning, agricultural and public policy issues. European environment ministers first agreed on the compromise legislation in June 2014.

Authorisations for cultivation of GM crops in the EU have been blocked for several years. One of the first to make it out of the pipeline is likely to be DuPont Pioneer’s insect-resistant maize 1507, which is also resistant to the weedkiller glufosinate ammonium.

DuPont Pioneer says 1507 should be approved without further delay as it meets all EU regulatory requirements, and has received seven positive safety opinions from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). Pioneer submitted the application 14 years ago.

However, EFSA is reconsidering its risk mitigation recommendations relating to GM maize pollen dispersal and effects on wildlife, following new research published in 2014 (W. Wosniok et al, Environmental Sciences Europe, 2014, doi:10.1186/s12302-014-0024-3), EFSA spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth explains. The study reported dispersal of maize pollen up to 4.5km from the field; EFSA had recommended isolation distances of 30m for protected natural habitats from 1507.  EFSA will publish its supplementary advice at the end of May 2015.

Anti-GM campaigners want any authorisation to wait for EFSA’s update. Another cause for delay is health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukatis’ review of the approval process for GM crops, requested by Commission president Juncker in 2014, and expected in May. It’s unlikely that any authorisations would happen before this, says a Commission spokesman.

The UK will not see any GM crops under cultivation any time soon, however. All the products in the pipeline are maize varieties that protect against insects that are not problems in the UK, says Joe Perry, chair of the EFSA GMO Panel. ‘Alternative crops such as herbicide-tolerant maize and sugar beet are not currently under consideration. Companies have been withdrawing applications for cultivation in Europe after having become convinced that it was not worthwhile to maintain trying to overcome the obstacles placed against commercialisation by certain member states.’

The new law has produced mixed reactions. Beat Späth of EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, says it is a ‘step backwards’ as it enables states to reject safe products for ‘arbitrary and non-scientific’ reasons.

The UK National Farmers Union says European policymakers have supported ‘an unscientific and unacceptable approach to regulation, which sends anti-technology signals to the rest of the world, threatens the single market and goes against WTO [World Trade Organization] principles.’ What’s more, the NFU is concerned that the resulting legal uncertainties may further discourage seed companies from investing in biotechnology, putting farmers at a disadvantage.

GM Freeze is also concerned about the legal basis for national bans; however, its greatest fear remains contamination of non-GM crops. ‘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 … GM crops are likely to be heading our way,’ says director Liz O’Neill. ‘There are no EU-wide mandatory measures to prevent contamination within an individual member state and no rules governing liability.’

However, the law is great news for governments such as Wales and Scotland, which say they intend to stay GM-free, as they will be able to bypass the pro-GM stance of Westminster and apply for their own bans, says Friends of the Earth’s Clare Oxborrow.

Meanwhile, in February 2015, British MPs called for a shake-up of EU GM rules. The Science and Technology Committee published a report claiming the regulatory process is ‘not fit for purpose, and has driven research out of the EU and put at risk the UK’s ability to be a global player in agricultural technology’.

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