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Place Your Bets Now: GM vs Democracy in the EU

Are crops no one wants to eat really worth it?

By Eve Mitchell

“What a hot potato.”

unlabeled GE sweet corn coming to a store near you?EU Health and Consumer Commissioner Borg’s understatement opened his presentation of the cultivation application for GM Pioneer1507 maize to the European Council on Tuesday. Having been thumped to and fro like a flat football since before Christmas, we were expecting a vote on the application to answer the question once and for all. We didn’t get it.

Instead we got another round of “indicative votes” from EU Member States, and the outcome was grim. The Greeks currently hold the rotating Presidency of the Council, and being firmly anti-GM they are presumably keen not to be painted into any procedural corners that would see a new GM crop authorised on their watch. So Member States were asked to say what they would do if there was a vote. Only 5 out of 28 countries said they would vote in favour of the crop. Given the clear vote in the European Parliament on 16 January instructing the Council to reject the application, one would have thought that was that. It isn’t. Not by a long shot.

The Council operates under a qualified majority system, with each country casting a weighted number of votes – UK and France have 29 votes, Sweden 10, Malta 3, and so on. Since the UK voted in favour of the GM crop (much to the dismay of British people and against the clear opposition to GM in the Scottish and Welsh Governments), and since big-hitter Germany abstained, the indicative votes did not demonstrate a sufficient qualified majority either way. The law says that if an actual vote was cast and produced that result, the Commission would be bound to take a decision on the file. (The Commission’s last foray into this territory was with the highly controversial Amflora potato; its authorisation was recently annulled by the second highest court in the EU for failing to abide by the law. One suspects the Commission is on tenterhooks here, but it also seems prepared to press the GM point.)

Thankfully the Greeks seem reluctant to ask for such a vote.

Still with me?

A complex legal discussion in the Council chamber tried to find a way through the marsh. Many member states had urged the Commission to withdraw the application altogether to avoid undermining the credibility of the European project in the run-up to the May elections, saying they did not see how approval by politically-appointed Commissioners could be explained to the electorate after rejection by the Parliament and the clear majority of EU countries. The Greens say they will call for the resignation of the Commission with a formal motion of censure if it approves the file. A number of member states told the Council it would help an awful lot if countries would stand up for their convictions and vote “no” rather than abstaining, but clearly four couldn’t manage it. So here we are, in the marsh, waiting to see who blinks first.

Governing is a complex business, especially among 28 countries, and democracy is a hard-won and precious thing. Often the test of governing structures is how well they cope with contentious issues. Many commentators are calling this situation an example of the “absurd” nature of EU GM regulation. We need to be a bit careful here: everyone signed up to the rules of the game a long time ago, so we can’t say we didn’t know what would happen in such circumstances. It could also be a lot worse – this process means we still only grow one GM crop here. Even so this mess sure does make a citizen scratch her head in wonderment.

One way to sort this out is what I call “proper identification of the bad guy”. We need to remember that the real problem here is corporate-driven GM food, not democratic bureaucracy. When it comes to GM pollen contamination in honey, the EU (lead by a UK MEP) performs all sorts of contortions to hide it from consumers rather than ban the crop causing the problem. When it comes to deciding on new GM crops, following the law means ignoring the wishes of both the Parliament and the majority of EU member countries – so why not just ban GM crops if they really threaten the fabric of European togetherness as claimed?

Are crops no one wants to eat really worth it, particularly when the annual industry mouthpiece “assessment” of global GM uptake demonstrates a “plateau” in GM cultivation in major GM markets? It’s not even clear if Pioneer Hi-Bred will ever sell 1507 in the EU – while suing the Commission for delay in processing the 1507 maize application Pioneer Hi-Bred said, “Once cultivation approval is granted, DuPont Pioneer will evaluate the situation and the available options, and will take a strategic decision on the marketing of the product based on these considerations.” Honestly.

Many pro-GM politicians say we need to keep politics out of the GM discussion and “stick to the science” – a laughable position if you read any of the above. An adamant proponent of this position is UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson. 

So where is the Right Honourable Secretary of State while this is breaking loose?  Consulting with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to agree a democratic position for the UK on GM cultivation? Helping badgers in the flooded West Country learn to swim? No. In the run-up to the vote Paterson gave a pro-GM speech at a conference hosted by Big Biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio. (True story: the Countess of Mar felt compelled to ask a formal Parliamentary Question to clarify if Paterson was to “represent the policy of the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government, the policy of the United Kingdom Government, or his personal views” during the EuropaBio event – answer: UK. In that speech Patterson said of Pioneer1507 maize, “The UK has no current interest in planting this particular crop.” Yet the UK still voted in favour of it, mind you.). Soon the Secretary of State is off to Addis Ababa* to help the EU’s colourful Chief Scientist Anne Glover, another Brit, sell GM crops to Africans. No politics there.

GM vs Democracy? The wheel is spinning. I know where my money is.

* Update, February 17, 2014 : The trip was cancelled amid growing publicity after this piece was published.