GMOs: A consolidated moratorium but US pressure increases

Despite increasing pressure from the United States and the biotech industry, the EU's moratorium on GMO approvals has been consolidated by recent positive developments in Belgium and Germany, both of which can now be considered as part of the moratorium countries. Germany had never officially pronounced itself in favour of the moratorium but the government had deferred commercial cultivation pending discussions with the GM seed industry.  These discussions were later expanded to a broader-based stakeholder consultation process.  In October 2001 Agriculture/Consumer Affairs Minister Renate Künast and Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin wrote to the European Com-mission stating that the moratorium should remain in place until the revised GMO deliberate release directive enters into force (October 2002) and future Traceability/Labelling regulations are clarified.  In December, it was announced that the first round of consultations between government and stakeholders (industry, scientists, farmer organisations, trade unions, NGOs and church representatives) had been completed, with new meetings planned during 2002.  A government spokesperson said that overall the consultations are expected to take approximately another year.  A public meeting is scheduled for the summer to review the progress of different working groups set up under the consultation process.

In Belgium, Environment and Public Health Minister Magda Alvoet issued a press release at the beginning of December, clarifying her government's position on GMOs.  The clear message was that firm regulations must be in place before the moratorium can be lifted.  In particular, Minister Alvoet said that "Belgium has decided that two conditions will have to be met before any move can be made to lift the moratorium: - the Belgian government must undertake to transpose EU Directive 2001/18/EC into national legislation (the revised EU deliberate release directive), - regulations concerning traceability and labelling will have to be formally approved (Proposals tabled by the European Commission in July 2001 which yet have to be discussed/amended by the European Parliament)".

On the other hand, recent elections in Denmark, one of the original 'moratorium five' Member States (Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg), changed the political situation with the arrival of a more right-wing government.  It is anticipated that the new administration will be much less radical in its opposition to GMOs.  Although it is fortunately not expected that Denmark will leave the moratorium, the demands of the previous government (former Agriculture Minister and EU Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard and former Environment Minister Svend Auken) are likely to be severely watered down.  This means that Denmark will no longer push for labelling of food produced from GMO-fed animals, will give up its demand for liability of GMO producers, and is likely to accept the Commission's proposals to allow 1% 'adventitious' contamination of food by unapproved and unlabelled GMOs.

US steps up the pressure

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is increasing its demands that the EU lifts the moratorium and speeds up the GMO approval process.  Among others, US Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Alan Larson, in particular, has built up his air miles considerably over the past few months by making frequent visits to Brussels to put pressure on the European Commission.  The Commission is playing the "between a rock and a hard place" game.  On the one hand, they claim that the moratorium is illegal and indeed, under the old deliberate release directive 90/220/EEC which is technically still in force, the Commission has the final say if Member States fail to reach agreement on a GMO authorisation.  On the other hand, however, the Commission knows that it is political dynamite for them to act against the will of the Member States and, since the GMO approval process ground to a halt in spring 1998, it has never dared take that step.  Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne is on record as saying that he would "never go against the will of the Member States" on a political issue such as this.

So the Commission is playing a waiting game - when the new deliberate release directive comes into force in October 2002, the decision-making procedure changes putting the onus of the final decision in the lap of the Member States (as it should be) rather than with the Commission.  At that time, the Commission will feel that the pressure has been lifted from its back - it can metaphorically throw its hands in the air when faced by American politicians or biotech industry executives and say that the fault lies with the Member States.  This will provide relief from repeated demands by the US government and biotech companies that the Commission take Member States to court for not allowing more GMO authorisations or for imposing national bans on particular GMOs.

Another threat that the US government is waving in the face of the European Union is the possibility of a trade war under the WTO.  In August 2001, the Commission notified the WTO's Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade of its Proposals for future EU Regulations on Traceability/Labelling of GMOs and GM Food/Feed.  WTO members had until 28 December to file comments on the proposals and the US comments are, unsurprisingly, very critical (impracticable, too costly, etc.).  The Commission is expected to publish its response to the comments received in the WTO in the coming weeks.

The Spanish Presidency

It remains to be seen how the GMO situation will evolve under the Spanish Presidency.  Spain is considered one of the  most pro-GMO Member States and is the only country in the EU where any significant amounts of GM crops are grown (about 25,000 hectares of Bt maize).  There is, therefore, a potential risk that during its presidency, the Spanish government might push for the moratorium to be lifted by supporting the relaunch of the so-called "gentlemen's agreement" initiative with the biotech industry.  This initiative, first put forward by the Commission in July 2000, proposes that GMO approvals could start again if the biotech companies commit themselves, under voluntary agreements, to adhering to the conditions of both the revised deliberate release directive (before it is officially in place) AND the future EU Regulations on Traceability/Labelling of GMOs and GM Food/Feed.  This, of course, is a ridiculous proposal for a number of reasons, not least because the European Parliament had not even started to discuss the Traceability/Labelling and GM Food/Feed proposals (it has just done so – Ed.), so no-one knows what the final regulations will look like.  This procedure, under codecision between the Parliament and the Council, will not be completed until the latter part of this year, with the Regulations not actually entering into force until early 2003.

Gill Lacroix, who wrote this article, is Biotechnology Coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, on whose website at www.foeeurope.org/publications this article first appeared. To keep up-to-date with developments on the moratorium, GMO regulation and other biotech news, consult the FoEE Biotech Mailout at www.foeeurope.org/biotechnology/about.htm