European governments agreed to go their own way on the cultivation of genetically modified crops, ending years of legislative deadlock.
European Union environment ministers decided to let individual member countries ban the planting of gene-altered crops so EU nations that favor such seeds can grow them, denting a free-trade tenet of the bloc.
The ministers swung behind a 2010 proposal to give national governments, when it comes to cultivating gene-altered crops, an opt-out from rules making the 28-member bloc a single market. The opt-out option would follow any EU authorization to grow such foods, known as gene-modified organisms, or GMOs.
"This is a real step forward in unblocking the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops, which is currently letting down our farmers and stopping scientific development," U.K. Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson said after the accord today in Luxembourg.
The draft law 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 split 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 last year.
The biotech-food industry criticized the planned rule changes, with the European Association for Bioindustries saying they "renationalize" EU policy and Monsanto alleging they disregard science.
"This decision would be tragic-comic if it didn’t send such a bad signal to the rest of the world that it’s okay to ignore science and ban things for populist purposes," Brandon Mitchener, a Brussels-based spokesman for Monsanto, said in an e-mail. "The proposal makes it clear that the EU’s objections to GM crops are political rather than scientific."
The European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm that put forward the 2010 proposal, 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 ministerial accord, any EU government could request that an applicant for authorization to grow gene- modified crops in the bloc "adjust the geographical scope" of its request "to the effect that part or all of the territory of that member state be excluded from cultivation."
Should the applicant oppose the adjustment sought, the EU government would have the right to "adopt measures restricting or prohibiting the cultivation of that GMO in all or part of its territory once authorized," according to the ministerial deal.
Furthermore, any EU government that didn’t seek an exclusion from the geographical scope of a cultivation approval at the time of the application would, after two years, have the right to request such an exemption based on "new objective circumstances," according to the accord.
Germany, whose initial opposition to the flexibility proposal helped to stall it, switched sides today and vowed to use the exclusion option.
"Germany will take part in the possibility to do this opt- out," German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told reporters in Luxembourg. "This is a new position from Germany and I’m very proud that we now have this position."
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, according to the commission.
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.
European Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said he was "delighted" by today’s agreement and called it "a balanced compromise."
The European Parliament gave its initial endorsement in July 2011 to the commission proposal to allow post-authorization opt-outs regarding GMO cultivation.
The accord among the environment ministers sets the stage for talks between governments and the Parliament to iron out differences and strike a final agreement.