Audit Reveals Flawed or Absent EU GM Controls

Effective Enforcement, and a Liability Regime, Needed Before GM Crop Expansion Harms Farmers or Misleads Shoppers

Brussels — An official audit published in December 2014 by the European Commission reveals shocking gaps in enforcement of legal controls placed on EU Member States growing genetically modified (GM) crops. Food & Water Europe says these failures, and the apparent inability of regulators to enforce improvements over years, call into question official reassurances that GM crops are safe and well-managed in Europe.

The group’s EU Food Policy Analyst Eve Mitchell said: “A good deal of noise is being made about the recent changes to European GM crop approvals, but almost nothing is said about the ongoing failure to honour the laws governing GM crop production. The Commission’s own audit makes sobering reading for farmers and other citizens, who may well wonder how well we really are protected.”

Among the most disturbing revelations in the audit report are:

Breaches of seed law: The Commission reports that some Member States are permitting contamination of seed with GM varieties that are not approved to grow in the EU. This violates the laws on both seed purity and seed labelling.

GM seed can only produce a GM crop, so official assurances that European agriculture only permits GM crops under tightly defined and controlled circumstances are clearly strained if some countries do not abide by the law. Furthermore, labels on seed must be accurate so farmers know what they are buying, growing and selling into the food chain.

Breaches of labelling law: The 2014 Commission audit found a number of problems with the way GM labels are applied or underpinned, including authorities permitting routine, illegal, unlabelled low-level contamination of non-GM products with GMOs. Inadequate testing, sampling and communication of findings are also reported.

If testing is not conducted properly, or if labelling law is simply ignored, shoppers cannot have faith in what they are buying. The impact this may have on market confidence, including with export markets, is yet to be seen.

Monitoring done by GM companies: Regarding cultivation of Monsanto’s controversial MON810 GM maize, the Commission reports that vital post-market monitoring for long-term environmental impacts is “limited largely to anecdotal or casual observations noted in the context of the farmer questionnaires issued by the consent holder”.

The consent holder, Monsanto, then voluntarily supplies the Commission with reports of its findings from these questionnaires. These reports, perhaps unsurprisingly, “did not identify any adverse effects of MON810 cultivation”.

Absence of internal or cross-border controls: Of particular concern to countries wishing to ban GM crops, the Commission found that farmers are buying GM seed over international borders and bringing it home to grow. The report says that the location of such fields “was not known” to the countries concerned, and that in one country the authorities were not even aware of GM crops in their territory that Monsanto itself had informed the EU were growing.

Mitchell continued: “At a time when some EU countries are actively promoting increased GM production, it simply can’t be right that countries don’t know GM maize is growing in their territory, or if they do know they can’t say where, or that GM seed is clearly moving unchecked over international borders. We have a right to expect everyone to play by the rules, or to be punished if they do not.”

The extent of the problems can be glimpsed in the 2011 audit of Spain’s GM crop production, the biggest in Europe. That report showed the failure to use accredited laboratories for GM testing dating back to at least 2005.

Mitchell said: “The Spanish example shows how easily official GM crop controls are apparently ignored and how difficult regulators seem to find it to pull a Member State into compliance. Basic problems identified way back in 2005 are still there years later, which must surely be a red flag that Europe needs to tighten up considerably before even considering expanding GM production.”

Other identified problems in Spain are serious: a lack of monitoring of negative impacts on biodiversity, operating an illegal GM threshold on seed, selling GM seed without proper labels, failure to consult the public on GM trials, and no requirement for farmers to use isolation distances between GM and non-GM crops.

Mitchell said: “This is a long way from what most people think of as proper and transparent control of GMOs as required by law. Relying on Monsanto to tell us, if it wants to, that everything is safe is clearly not enough.

“If the market cannot be relied on because the law is not enforced, it only makes the argument that much more urgent for clear, strong economic liability for all damage done by GM food and crops, including across international borders. The polluter should pay with GM crops just like any other industry.”

Contacts: Eve Mitchell, Food & Water Europe (UK time), +44(0)1381 610 740, emitchell(at)fweurope(dot)org