Leaked documents suggest the European Union is planning to loosen its zero tolerance ban on genetically modified (GM) plants. Environmental campaigners are outraged, saying the crops are still potentially dangerous.
Genetically modified animal feed could soon be imported into Europe
According to environmental group Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), the European Commission is planning to allow traces of non-approved GM crops in imports coming into Europe (with a threshold of 0.1 percent). "Europe would effectively open its borders for GM crops which are not authorized or assessed for their safety in any country of the world," an FoEE statement said.
A number of European Union governments on Monday urged the bloc's executive to allow tiny traces of GM material in food imports for human consumption as well as in animal feed, an EU source said. However, it is not yet clear whether enough EU governments support the change to force the European Commission to amend its proposal, and a final decision is unlikely before January at the earliest.
Farmers say the imports are necessary to keep prices down
"The European Commission is bowing to the scaremongering tactics of the biotech industry, and as a result, opening Europe's markets to unauthorized GM food and feed." Mute Schimpf, an FoEE food campaigner said. "Europe's laws on genetically modified foods are there for a reason – to protect the public and the environment."
Environmentalists believe that the EU's hand is being forced by the bio-technology industry, which is arguing that the EU's total ban on GM crops could bring about a crisis in the feed sector, and farmers may be forced to slaughter animals rather than let them starve.
"This is based upon the false argument that international trade is severely disrupted when shipments of feed containing unauthorised GM feed are rejected," the FoEE said. The campaigners claimed that no shipment from any feed importing country (US, Argentina or Brazil) was rejected at a European port in 2010.
"The right of the public to say no to GM foods and feeds must be respected," Schimpf demanded. "Member states should reject this proposal and maintain Europe's position on zero tolerance."
But European farmer organizations have shown little concern over the proposal. Amanda Cheesley, spokeswoman for Copa Cogeca, the umbrella group of European farming organizations, told Deutsche Welle, "We are not averse to imports of GM feed coming in. If it's been approved under the Commission's authorization procedures, then we don't have a problem with it."
Cheesley believes that the EU's current zero tolerance policy is unsustainable. "We want a solution to be found to that because in practise you can't have zero tolerance," she said. "It stops imports coming in, which means that feed prices go too high for livestock."
France has criticized the EU's GM assessment procedures
Cheesley says that Europe's farmers have other worries. "We have concerns about the Commission's proposals to let member states have different policies on GM products," she said.
The Commission made legal proposals in July to allow national governments make their own decisions on the controversial crops, in a bid to break the longstanding EU deadlock on new GM product approvals.
But a new opinion from the EU Council of Ministers' legal service could deal a fatal blow to the plans, after several EU governments already expressed fears that the draft law risks breaching World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also set out new guidelines for biotech companies submitting GM crops for EU approval on Friday, including on possible long-term effects of GM crops and their impacts on insects and other plants.
The new guidelines follow a request from EU governments in 2008 to strengthen EFSA's GM crop assessment procedures, and criticism from countries including France that EFSA had failed to take full account of environmental concerns when approving new crops.
France has refused to discuss European Commission proposals to let member states decide whether to grow or ban GM crops, until the EU's assessment procedures have been strengthened.
In December, the Commission is due to publish a report on the socio-economic risks and benefits of GM crops, and new rules on monitoring GM crops are due next year, as part of the wider overhaul of the bloc's approval and assessment procedures.
Author: Ben Knight (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Rob Turner