As the European Parliament grants EU countries greater individual freedom over the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, DW talks to Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director, Marco Contiero for his view.
What is your response to the new legislation?
Greenpeace finds that it does provide member states with a new right, but the law has some major flaws. The first is that it basically grants GM companies the power to negotiate with elected governments, which we criticize. Secondly, it excludes the strongest legal arguments to ban GM crops in national territories, which is evidence related to environmental impacts and risks.
How does the law change GM regulation within Europe?
It gives member states two new options: From now on they will be allowed to restrict the cultivation of GM crops in their territory, and they can decide whether to negotiate with companies and demand that companies exclude their territory from the request for authorization. The other option that member states have is to directly and pro-actively impose a national ban of the cultivation of GM crops in their territory.
Could you explain what you perceive to be the limitations of the legislation?
The concerns we have relate to political and legal issues. From a political point of view, we consider it problematic that companies have the right to negotiate with elected governments. It grants private companies a formal role in the process of banning or restricting GM cultivation, and that provides companies with a very relevant avenue to influence governments. The legal concern we have relates to the power to ban GM crops.
What does the new legislation mean for the countries that have already banned the use of GM crop cultivation?
These countries are expected to confirm their bans and they will have the choice to enact an official ban or to request the companies that have applied for authorization at EU level. In this case we are only talking about Monsanto, but they will have to ask Monsanto whether it is willing to exclude the territories of these nine member states from its application at EU level.
Which countries in Europe are we likely to see allowing GM crops?
Those that are already doing it. Spain, where GM maize is already cultivated. Then the UK, the Netherlands, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania.
What are the dangers of using of GM crops?
The reason for our concern regarding the cultivation of GM crops relates to the fact that technology through which we create these crops, does not understand the way in which the genome of these plants works. This means the technology is prone to have unintended and unpredictable impacts on the way in which the genome of these plants actually work.
The other problem is that we are not talking about the confined use in laboratories, but about the deliberate release of genetically modified living organisms into the environment, a place where there can be no control or recall. Additionally there are known impacts. Maize crops that release a toxin can have an impact on other beneficial insects aside from the pests that they are supposed to attack.
Who stands to benefit from the opt-out measure?
The main objective of this legislation is for Europe to start authorizing GM crops more quickly. So biotech companies will benefit. Aside from that, governments that have criticized GM crops in the past now have a clearer, if legally weak, tool to ban the cultivation of GM crops in their countries.
What does it mean for a country that bans GM crop cultivation, but which shares a border with one that permits it?
If a country that decides to grow GM crops, but which has a neighbor that decides against, the country that wants to grow them will have to put in place co-existence measures around the border areas.
Greenpeace believes the government of a country that allows the cultivation of GM crops should be obliged to put in place co-existence measures in order to protect conventional and organic farmers from contamination via GM crops.
What does this mean for European food quality?
It is really a political question. The EU can't compete with big producers of commodities like the US or Brazil, where you have a massive monoculture of these products. What Europe should do is to invest in quality, diversity, local production, and produce with an indication of origin, products that will have a much stronger place in the international market.
How should the EU be framing environmental policy in the future?
We believe the concerns that have been expressed over GM crops during the past decade and a half should be used to address the real problem, which is the way we farm. The way we design our food system should be radically changed. Agriculture is facing challenges, one of which is climate change, so we have to redesign our agricultural system to ensure that our farming practices are based on valorizing biodiversity and agricultural diversity.
We need to make sure we build resilient systems, systems that can resist shocks such as climate shocks. Maintaining a system that favors monocultures of identical plants that can be attacked by pests and destroyed by erratic weather conditions is not the way forward.
The interview was conducted by Charlotta Lomas. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.