13 January 2015

Giving more control over GMO approvals to member states

MEPs have today voted in favour of changing EU rules governing the approval process for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to give member states greater discretion over whether to allow or prohibit cultivation on their own territory.  Currently, member states vote on scientific assessments provided by the EU’s food regulator, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but due to a climate of cultural hostility to GMOs, many member states have opposed approvals regardless of the scientific evidence.

15 years

EU's GMOs approvals backlog

How long would it would take to clear the backlog in the EU's GMOs approval system based on 2012 approval rates if no new applications were to be lodgedSource: EuropaBio

This political deadlock means that decisions are kicked into the long grass, resulting in an unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming approvals process with a huge backlog. As documented by George Freeman MP and myself in a Fresh Start report about the EU’s impact on life sciences, this has led to the virtual collapse of GMO cultivation in Europe compared with the rest of the world – to the detriment of growth, competitiveness and innovation. This is particularly damaging for the UK which has a substantial biotechnology sector eager to tap into growing global demand for innovative, multi-purpose agricultural products, but risks being trapped in the ‘global slow lane’ due to the EU’s restrictive regulations and anti-science bias.

The new rules will allow member states to ban GMOs on the basis of environmental policy objectives which do not conflict with EFSA environmental risk assessments, as well as a range of other factors including “agricultural policy objectives, socio-economic impacts, coexistence and public policy”. The flipside is that these member states will be less likely to sabotage the EU-wide approvals process and countries such as the UK which are more open to GMO cultivation will be able to press ahead.

Greater flexibility could be applied more widely within the EU

Greater flexibility for member states to ‘go it alone’ was one of the key recommendations in the Fresh Start report so today’s vote is a positive development. It strikes a better balance between respecting scientific evidence but also public sensitivities and it puts the onus on national politicians – not the EU – to make the case for or against GMO cultivation to their own electorates; a far more democratic solution.

However, the significance of today’s ruling could extend well beyond the area of GMO regulation. It explicitly recognises that different perspectives among member states require a more flexible EU approach with greater ability for member states to tailor policies based on their own economic, cultural and political circumstances. This attitude can and should be applied to a number of EU policy areas ranging from safeguards for non-euro members to enhanced co-operation in the area of services liberalisation to crime and policing co-operation and many others.