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EU seeks compromise on genetically modified crops

The European Commission has proposed a compromise in the dispute over genetically modified crops. It wants to devolve power to national governments, but it seems to have upset both GM proponents and detractors alike.

Inside a French-based research lab of US agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto

Biotech companies are also concerned about the EU proposal

In an unprecedented step to hand European Union powers back to member states, the bloc's executive - the European Commission - has drafted plans to give countries the freedom to decide for themselves whether to grow or ban genetically modified crops.

John Dalli at a press conference on GM products

European Health Commissioner John Dalli says the executive is neutral

The move is the result of frustration over years of deadlock over introducing the technology into the EU.

The proposal would enable member states to prohibit the cultivation of GM crops that have already been scientifically approved, using economic, social and ethical reasons as the justification for the bans.

Countries would have the power to prohibit cultivating the crops on all or part of their territories.

Under the current system, GM crop applications are examined by a panel of experts from EU states and need to pass with a qualified majority. In the case of a deadlock, the decision goes to EU ministers and if an impasse persists, the European Commission is left with the final decision.

To date, only two varieties of GM crops have been approved in the bloc, compared to around 150 world-wide.

More legal disputes?

Opponents of genetically modified food are worried that biotech companies will take advantage of the new proposal to force more of their products into the union.

"Any country wanting to ban GM crops under these proposals will open themselves up to legal challenges from the biotech corporations who want to force GM crops into Europe," said Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for environmental group Friends of the Earth Europe.

The UK-based organization GM Freeze warned that members of the EU opposed to GM crops could be exposed to fresh trade complaints, which would be difficult to defend against.

"Member states should approach the commission's proposals claiming to facilitate bans on GM crops with extreme caution," said Pete Riley, Campaigns Director at GM Freeze.

"They need to ensure that in the short and long term that they will be able to ban a GM crop without ending up in court or with a WTO dispute."

Riley said he wasn't categorically opposed to the proposal.

Allowing member states the right to make the final decision on GM crops is "the right thing to do," he said, but he is concerned that what is on the table "appears to be subject to last minute changes."

Biotech disappointment

However, far from celebrating a business opportunity, some biotech proponents are expressing concerns about the prospects of more – not fewer – legal battles in future.

A farmer loads a planting device with genetically manipulated Amflora potatoes prior to planting a test field near Buetow, northern Germany

In early 2010, the EU authorized the cultivation of the genetically modified Amflora potato

"Our fear is that it (the proposal) will be misused by governments to ban products indiscriminately," Carel du Marchie Sarvaas - from the European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio) - told Deutsche Welle.

"We are science-based people, so when we hear politicians say that it's OK to ban something for political reasons, we find that hard to live with."

"You're going to have different rules in different EU countries," said Julian Little, spokesman for German biotech firm Bayer CropScience.

"It's just inviting legal disputes, and the lawyers are going to love it."

Farming perspective

Farmers are also unimpressed.

Copa-Cogeca - an organization representing farmers and agricultural cooperatives in the EU - is worried that differing rules between European countries would jeopardize the EU's internal market and distort competition between the bloc's farmers.

"This will result in new legal and commercial risks, which farmers cannot cover themselves," said Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen.

"We also urge the Commission to make sure that the independent EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment process remains the basis of the GM authorization system," added Pesonen.

However, the European Commission appears determined to push through with its plans, and is no stranger to hostility on the issue - having defended the bloc's current policy in global trade disputes while facing pressure at home for approving GM products in the first place.

The new proposals have been designed to try and minimize the chances for governments or the European Parliament to block or change them.

Author: Eva Wutke (AFP/Reuters)

Editor: Nathan Witkop

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