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June 2014

EU GM plant cultivation - how did we get to this weird situation?

The EU’s Environment Council (that’s the group of environment Ministers from the 28 member states) this morning voted in favour of a proposal that would allow member states to opt out of growing a genetically modified crop if one is approved for cultivation. The proposal was supported by 26 countries with two abstaining. So member states which will probably never allow GM crops to be grown and those which are keen to get started voted for this.

But a lot of people don’t like it. Anti-GM campaign groups are against it because they think it will be challenged under trade laws. Companies don’t like it because they think it will damage innovation and open them up to legal action for cross border contamination. People who support Europe as an idea don’t like it because it undermines the principle of European wide regulation.

How did we get to such a strange situation?

The Cultivation proposal represents an attempt by European politicians to find a ‘go around’ because the European regulation of crops bred through one kind of genetic alteration (GM) is different, on no sound scientific basis, from regulation of new crops bred using another kind of genetic alteration (eg mutagenesis). The result of this has been years of approvals on scientific and safety basis, which have then been thrown to the winds as different nations delay political approval because of their own national politics. These delays put the European Commission in the dock at the European Courts of Justice, which ruled last year that a regulatory approval process could not be arbitrarily held up in that way.

The Cultivation proposal is the result of responding to that situation – a command to have a rational system confronted by the reality of politically motivated delays. By allowing countries to opt out at the beginning of a submission for cultivation approval, those national governments who want to continue to be seen to oppose GM can (e.g. France, where the government noisily backs the German greens’ anti-GM rhetoric in the hope that German reps won’t make too much fuss about its pro-nuclear position), without it stopping others from approving and without it technically breaking the fundamental terms of Europe and the common market.

The next step is second reading at European Parliament and the Commissioner thinks everything will be wrapped up by Christmas.