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A cob of Portuguese maize: Portugal being one of the only countries in the EU to permit the cultivation of a GMO maize variety. Photo: Rosino via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
A cob of Portuguese maize: Portugal being one of the only countries in the EU to permit the cultivation of a GMO maize variety. Photo: Rosino via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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France, Germany, Poland ... ten European nations to go GMO-free

Oliver Tickell

30th September 2015

With the deadline for EU countries who wish to ban genetically GM crops drawing near, writes Oliver Tickell, Poland is the latest to register with the European Commission to go GM-free. Now the division of the EU into pro and anti-GM zones may test the single market beyond its limits.

It is hard to see how the inevitable tensions will be resolved. All the more so as the law surrounding the member opt-outs is highly complex, technical, framed within the wider context of EU law, and has yet to be tested in the courts.

Poland has just registered with the European Commission as an official GM-free zone. This makes it the tenth EU member state to opt out of cultivating genetically modified (GM) crops.

It joins France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Lithuania and Latvia in either filing the necessary papers with the Commission, or announcing their intention to do so.

STOP PRESS - More countries join GMO ban - see here for details: 'Two thirds of EU cropland, population ditch GM crops'.

Within the UK Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have also decided to prohibit the cultivation of GM crops - leaving England as the odd man out'. Belgium has also excuded GM crops from its French-speaking Wallonia region.

"We have already dealt with applications issued by Greece and Latvia, in other cases, our work is still in progress", said Enrico Brivio spokesman for the EU's environment commission. The deadline for countries to submit their application is this Saturday, 3rd October.

While not an EU country, Serbia has also announced that it will not permit the cultivation of GM crops, mainly in order to protet its successful soyabean sector. The country is currently a major exporter of non-GM soyabeans for which demand is increasing worldwide.

Russia has also signalled its intention to block the cultivation and use of GM crops. "As far as genetically-modified organisms are concerned, we have made decision not to use any GMO in food productions", Deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich recently told an international conference on biotechnology.

'Real progress' in the battle to keep Poland GMO-free!

Poland's opt-outs cover all varieties of GM maize developed for use in agriculture. This result comes after Association for a GMO Free Poland and the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside raised the alarm that the Polish government was failing to act on the GMO opt out clause.

Poland banned the import and planting of GM seeds in 2006, after strong public pressure. The first Country to do so. However successive Polish governments have been unconvincing concerning the enforcement of controls necessary to properly monitor potential GM plantings.

"Seventy five percent of Polish citizens have consistently said 'NO to GMO'", said Jadwiga Lopata, Founder of the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside (ICPPC). "Government is duty bound to act on such a conclusive voice in favour of banning GMO.

"This opt-out presents an opportunity to stand up for the independent sovereignty of Poland as a GMO Free nation. But it is critical that the Polish Parliament makes a clear act banning GMO in Poland."

Sir Julian Rose, ICPPC President, said: "This is real progress in the battle to keep Poland GMO Free in which we have been engaged since 2004. The nation has a proud record of fine farmhouse foods that purvey health and welfare to millions of citizens. For this record to be maintained, GM crops must be prohibited from being cultivated on Polish soils."

An ugly compromise at the EU

The right for EU countries to opt out of GM cultivation was agreed in March 2015 and came into force in April as a compromise between pro and anti-GM countries. The agreement allows countries to opt out of GM crop cultivation as a safety measure to protect health and environment, or to protect consumer interests and the internal market.

The Commission's proposal was denounced by politicians and campaigners on all sides, with pro-GM UK Conservative MEPs insisting that decisions on the cultivation and sale of GM food "should be based purely on scientific assessment of their benefits or potential risks ...

"GMOs authorised at EU level by food safety watchdog EFSA are already deemed safe. It is a dark day when the EU's executive is happy to sit by and watch its own basic freedoms, trade commitments, farmers and consumers suffer while ignoring the scientific advice that taxpayers themselves are paying for."

Meanwhile Greenpeace's food policy director Franziska Achterberg complained that the proposed reform would allow the Commission to authorise the import of GMOs - even when opposed by most national governments, the European Parliament and the public:

"The Commission's proposal is a farce because it leaves the current undemocratic system untouched. It would allow the Commission to continue ignoring major opposition to GM crops, despite president Juncker's promise to allow a majority of EU countries to halt Commission decisions on GMOs."

Can the EU's single market survive the GMO split?

The effective split of Europe into two camps - those who do grown GM crops and those that do not - presents a challenge to Europe's single market and may prove hard to maintain as GM seeds inevitably come to contaminate crops in supposedly GM-free countries.

A parallel proposal, agreed in April, allows EU countries to decide whether or not to allow the import of GM crops for human food and animal feeds - but exercising the GMO opt-out is no simple matter. As the Commission explained at the time:

"Once a GMO is authorised for use as food or feed in Europe, Member States will have the possibility to decide on whether to opt out from allowing that particular GMO to be used in their food chain.

"Member States will have to justify that their opt-out measures comply with EU law, which includes the principles of the Internal Market, and EU's international obligations of which the EU's WTO obligations are an integral part.

"Opt-outs shall be based on legitimate reasons other than those assessed at EU level, i.e. risk to human or animal health or the environment."

Given the vast volume of cross border trade in agricultural seeds, crops, foods, animal feeds and farm produce between EU countries - which takes place without border controls under the EU's single market - it is hard to see how the inevitable tensions will be resolved.

All the more so as the law surrounding the member opt-outs is highly complex, technical, framed within the wider context of EU law, and has yet to be tested in the courts.

A huge mess in the making? Without a doubt. Can the single market survive the strain? Very possibly not.



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.


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