Member States Get GMO Powers

Member States may soon have more powers to control the cultivation of GMOs in their territories. Commission initiatives that aim to make sweeping changes to the regulation of GMOs could hand back autonomy to Member States, allowing them the power to restrict or ban GMO cultivation as they see fit.  The package of measures marks a change in direction from the Commission, in what is a very controversial area of EU policy.

The package, made up of a Communication, a Recommendation and a proposal for a Regulation was presented by the Commission on 13 July 2010.

The Current Position

At present, once a GMO is granted an authorising license by the EU, it is authorised in all Member States of the Union. Any safeguard measures from Member States that seek to ban the authorised GMOs have to meet stringent conditions.

The paramount aim of the system is to protect the internal market.  However the system has been controversial and unpopular with a number of Member States.  Currently two GMO crops can be cultivated in the EU: MON 810 (a GM maize strain) and Amflora (a GM starch potato).  However six Member States have adopted safeguard measures against MON 810 and three Member States are in the process of doing the same against Amflora.

The Right to Restrict or Ban GMOs

The proposal for a Regulation would allow Member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of GMOs within their territory. The option is given to Member States to institute a restriction or ban either in the entire territory or within a certain area, thus giving the option to Member States to create GMO free zones.

In a departure from the current position, the proposal would allow the Member State to introduce safeguard measures beyond the traditional grounds of health and environmental risks. Instead the Member States may use any justification that they deem appropriate, such as social, economic, moral or ethical grounds. Thus the Commission aims to give a high degree of discretion to Member States. The Commission argues that this will allow Member States to adopt a policy that adequately reflects the attitudes of their society to GMOs, which differs between Member States.

No prior authorisation is needed from the Commission to adopt a safeguard measure. The only obligation set out in the Proposal is that the Member States must inform one another and the Commission one month before implementing the restriction or ban.

The EU Retains the Right to Authorise the use of GMOs

The Proposal does not make any changes to the authorisation system that must be respected before a GMO can be cultivated.  Therefore if a Member State wishes to grow GMOs on its territory it must ensure that the GMOs meet the required EU safety standards and have been issued with an authorisation license. The Commission has stated that the proposal will not speed up the process of authorisation and the same level of checks on GMOs will be carried out.

Preventing Cross Contamination

A possible problem that may occur from the package is cross contamination between GMO crops and non-GMO crops, if some Member States allow GMO cultivation and others do not.  The Commission has sought to find a solution to this problem through the “co-existence measures” that are set out in Recommendation, which forms part of the package.

The previous Commission recommendation on cross contamination allowed for up to 0.9% contamination of non-GMO crops. If a crop exceeded this threshold it had to be labeled as a GM food, feed or product. In order to avoid cross contamination Member States were advised to implement rules concerning the distances between GM and non-GM fields, and other measures.

The current recommendation amends the previous guidelines. The Commission is now advising the adoption of a stricter approach to isolation measures to avoid contamination.  

Next Steps

The Council and Parliament will start discussing the package of measures in autumn 2010.  The proposal for a Regulation will need to be adopted through the codecision procedure while the Recommendation is non-binding.