By Eve Mitchell
As widely predicted, the European Council agreed this morning to the compromise proposal on so-called national “opt outs” for GM crops. What happens next will be interesting indeed.
Luxembourg and Belgium abstained from the vote. Every other EU Member State supported the deal, but that doesn’t give a full picture of the situation by any means.
Around half of the Member States said outright they would ban GM crops or alluded that they would. Others noted the difficulties yet to be faced in agreeing coexistence rules needed to protect non-GM agriculture from GM contamination, including across international boundaries in our relatively small countries. None dismissed the delicacy of the next stage – securing the agreement with the EU Parliament. One speaker called the emerging agreement “historic,” and given the issue was first broached in 2009, I suppose that’s true to a point. More than one country called for the revision of the ten-year-old regulations of GMOs, and others the need to update and revise how Europe conducts its risk assessments of GMOs (as unanimously called for by this same Council. That’s a big can of worms indeed. Several speakers reminded the Council of the strong public opposition to GM food and crops back home. At the end of the meeting, Italy said that the agreement “demonstrates the unity of Europe”.
I heard a lot of things during this meeting, but unanimity wasn’t one of them.
So on we go to that next stage, where a brand new Parliament will have to take on a highly controversial issue that touches on food production and safety, public health, international trade, environmental protection, national sovereignty, democratic accountability and corporate control of agriculture all in one go. Good luck to them. Good luck to us. We will be relying on the countries who signalled disquiet with any number of issues in this deal (while agreeing to it anyway, in the spirit of cooperation of course), to insist those issues are clearly addressed and real answers provided. The pressure being applied will make those lines hard to hold.
If the Parliament and Council can someday wrestle an actual agreement out of all that, we’ll then have to see if the biotech industry plays ball and permits any bans to stand. If anything like half of EU countries ban GM crops in all or parts of their territories it will give the industry a pretty big headache of multilingual regulations to adhere to across what is supposed to be a Single Market. That nagging issue of coexistence will be there, as well as liability for any damage done by their products, particularly if that damage occurs across international borders into areas banning the crops in the first place. Since the chief GM lobby group EuropaBio has already put out a tetchy statement of disappointment saying, “This deal shows the lack of willingness of the EU institutions and Member States to correctly implement the current regulatory framework for GMO approvals they had decided upon themselves,” it isn’t at all clear the rules of the game will be agreed by all the players. Then again the industry has the WTO red card in its back pocket they can use to challenge any ban or start a trade war. Mere citizens have no such backstop.