The European Union agreed to let its national governments go their own way on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in a bid to end years of regulatory gridlock that fueled trans-Atlantic trade tensions.
The European Parliament voted today to allow individual EU countries to ban the planting of gene-altered crops so member nations that favor such seeds may gain easier approval from the bloc to grow them. The legislation endorsed by the EU assembly in Strasbourg, France, dents a free-trade tenet of the bloc, reflecting the deep split in Europe over biotech foods.
The law gives national governments, when it comes to cultivating gene-altered crops, an opt-out from rules making the 28-country EU a single market. The opt-out option will accompany or follow any EU authorization to grow such foods, known as gene-modified organisms, or GMOs.
“This agreement will ensure more flexibility for member states who wish to restrict the cultivation of the GMOs,” said Frederique Ries, a Belgian member who steered the measures through the EU Parliament. EU governments have already signaled support for the legislation, making final approval by them a formality in the coming weeks.
The law, a response to what has become one of Europe’s most tangled policy areas, aims to accelerate endorsements at EU level of requests to plant gene-altered seeds made by companies such as Monsanto Co. and declared safe by European scientists. A political divide in Europe over the risks posed by GMOs has delayed EU permission to grow them and prompted complaints by the U.S. and other trade partners seeking to expand the global biotech-seed market, valued at almost $16 billion in 2013.
The European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm that put forward the proposal in 2010, wants to enlarge Europe’s share of the biotech-seed market in the face of resistance by half or more of the bloc’s members. Surveys show opposition to gene-altered foods by European consumers, who worry about risks such as human resistance to antibiotics and the development of so- called superweeds that are impervious to herbicides.
Biotech foods range from corn to oilseeds in which genetic material has been altered to add traits such as resistance to weed-killing chemicals.
Under the legislation, any EU government will be able to demand that “the geographical scope” of an application for authorization to grow gene-modified crops in the bloc “be adjusted to the effect that all or part of the territory of that member state is to be excluded from cultivation.”
Alternatively, any EU government will have the right to “adopt measures restricting or prohibiting the cultivation in all or part of its territory of a GMO, or group of GMOs defined by crop or trait, once authorized” by the bloc.
EU governments struck a deal among themselves on the legislation in June last year, when Germany swung behind the flexibility proposal after initially opposing it and pledged to make use of the opt-out possibility.
The governments then ironed out technical differences with the EU Parliament in December, clearing the way for today’s endorsement by the 751-seat assembly.
The biotech-food industry has criticized the planned rule changes, with the European Association for Bioindustries saying they amount to a “non-cultivation agreement” under which EU governments can reject safe products for non-scientific reasons.
“That really is quite a bad precedent for the internal market,” said Beat Spaeth, director for agricultural biotechnology at the Brussels-based association, known as EuropaBio. “It’s also a bad precedent for science-based regulation. What’s next, a ban on yellow-colored cars?”
The EU ended a six-year ban on new gene-altered products in 2004 after tightening labeling rules and creating a food agency to screen applications.
In a case brought by the U.S., Canada and Argentina, the World Trade Organization ruled in 2006 that the European moratorium was illegal.
Neither the rule changes during the moratorium nor the WTO verdict altered an impasse in the EU over planting GMOs.
Since 2004, the EU has let new gene-modified products be imported for food and feed uses while stopping short of endorsing any request for cultivation with the exception of one application for a potato developed by BASF SE to be grown for the production of industrial starch.
The BASF potato is no longer grown in the EU, leaving a Monsanto corn variety approved in 1998 as the only gene-modified crop commercially cultivated in the bloc.
Each of the EU authorizations since 2004 resulted from the commission acting on its own after member states failed to muster a sufficient majority for or against, a stalemate that dragged decisions out for months or years and put the commission in the political crossfire. All the products had been declared safe by European scientists.
National authorities throughout the EU have a say over European-level approvals because the bloc’s common-market rules require that a product sold in one member state be allowed for sale in the others.
Of 18 still-pending applications that companies have submitted in the EU since 2005 to import gene-modified products, it has taken the bloc 76 months on average to handle the requests, according to EuropaBio, whose members include Monsanto, BASF, Bayer AG and Syngenta AG. The statistic excludes applications made to grow biotech crops in the EU -- a more controversial issue than import requests.
Because of this track record, EuropaBio said that -- beyond its dissatisfaction with the new legislation’s provision on individual national bans on the planting of gene-modified crops -- it has doubts the new system will lead to faster EU approvals for member countries that support cultivation.
“We are not convinced at all that the authorization procedure for cultivation will improve,” Spaeth said. “We don’t see any sign of this.”