EU nations can ban GM crops, says EU environment panel

Will this move set the precedent for GM-free food production in the world?

By Jemima Rohekar
Published: Wednesday 12 November 2014

Photo courtesy: Francisco Antunes/Flickr

The environment committee of the European Parliament has voted to allow EU countries to restrict or ban the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops on their respective territories, even if the product is approved at the EU level.

Bans could be based on, among other reasons, the country’s environmental policy, land use, agricultural policy, public policy, or possible socio-economic impacts.

The committee approved the new rules with 53 votes to 11 on Tuesday. EU countries had been debating the issue for many years, with countries like the UK in favour of allowing GM crops and France completely against it.

"The measures approved today will secure flexibility for member states to restrict, ban the cultivation of GM crops if they so wish. At the same time, we have secured a clear process for the authorisation of GM crops at the EU level, with improved safeguards and a key role for the European Food Safety Authority, which is important for us," said Frédérique Ries of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), according to an official press release.  Ries is steering the legislation in the parliament.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have also urged that countries must ensure that GM crops do not contaminate other products, and particular attention should be paid to preventing cross-border contamination, for instance by implementing “buffer zones” with neighbouring countries.

Environment advocacy organisations welcomed the EU vote. “Parliamentarians have radically improved the text adopted by the Council, which was heavily influenced by the UK government pro-GM stance,” Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director, said in this statement. “The vote would give European countries a legally solid right to ban GM cultivation in their territory, making it difficult for the biotech industry to challenge such bans in court.”

World’s largest research on GM crops

A group of scientists who claim to have no connection either with the biotech industry or the anti-GM movement have launched “Factor GMO”, said to be the world’s largest ever study on GM crops and pesticide safety.

This $25 million study will investigate the health effects of the presence of GM in food for humans and animal feed supplies. The full experiment will begin in 2015 and will last two to three years. The group will publish interim results during the period.

The research will take place at undisclosed locations in western Europe and Russia. Laboratory rats will be fed GM food and food with pesticide residue and the effects on them will be measured against current and more rigorous international safety standards.

“The cultivation of herbicide-resistant crops is widespread in the US, and the use of the herbicides to which these crops are resistant has increased manifold in the decades since they were introduced. There is a notable lack of published, peer-reviewed data on their safety, as well as data on the safety of the increased use of herbicides with which they are grown. The Factor GMO study could be very useful in reducing the uncertainty about the safety of these products,” said Bruce Blumberg, professor at University of California, Irvine, USA and one of the scientists on the review board of the study, in an official press release.

US-based biotechnology giant Monsanto, meanwhile, continues to battle international opposition to its GM technologies. The company has rejected all existing research reports that provide evidence of the ill-effects of GM crops. A recent study released by an organisation funded by Monsanto, among others, said the current agricultural growth rate won’t meet world food demand in 2030. It called for increased investment in “proven” strategies that would boost production.

Anti-GM movements in different countries

While anti-GM legislation in European countries will set a prominent trend among developed nations, many developing and under-developed countries have also begun experimenting with GM- and chemical-free agricultural practices.

Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe, for example, turned to organic farming to achieve food security when an international embargo restricted the country from receiving support to buy food or procuring seeds.

Read more:
Towards food security: perspectives from three continents
Nepal’s supreme court temporarily banned the import of GM seeds in January this year. Trials on Bt brinjal are also banned in the Philippines since 2011.

Bhutan’s bill on biosafety prohibits the “import, transit, intentional introduction, any use including contained use, research and development that involves GMOs capable of reproducing and any other genetically modified biological material capable of reproducing”.

The status of GM crops in India

GM crops were banned in India in 2010 after widespread protests. In October 2012, an expert committee, set up by the Supreme Court, had recommended a 10-year ban on trials of Bt transgenics in India. The same committee in its final report suggested virtually an indefinite moratorium.

The BJP’s poll manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections had indicated its openness to rethinking the issue. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had given its go-ahead to field trials of genetically modified food crops, including rice, wheat, maize, cotton and sorghum.

Cultivation of genetically modified food crops: prospects and effects

Guidance on the environmental risk assessment of genetically modified plants

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