Published 2018-02-27

This post is also available in Swedish

GMOs: ‘Europe’s countries should decide for themselves’

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have long been a controversial issue in the EU. Under the latest directive, however, each country has the option to prohibit cultivation of approved GM crops. Dennis Eriksson, active in Mistra Biotech, jointly with researchers from 12 countries, has published a proposal to allow European countries to say yes as well.

Within the EU, the GMO battle has been raging for many years. As a result, few GM crops have reached the market. Current legislation is based on collective Union decisions, allowing some countries to block GMO cultivation across the EU. Two years ago, this was supplemented with a new directive permitting every member state to ban a GM crop even if the rest of the EU has approved it.

‘Several countries have shown voting behaviour that seems politically, rather than scientifically motivated.’

The speaker is Dennis Eriksson, a researcher at the Department of Plant Breeding, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and active in Mistra Biotech.

Jointly with 13 researchers from 12 countries, Eriksson has published an opinion piece in the journal Nature Biotechnology. There, they present a proposal to supplement current legislation further.

The article originated two years ago, when Eriksson was working within the Mistra Fellows framework at the European Plant Science Organisation in Brussels. He began to wonder why the legislation enabled individual countries to ban GM crops, but not correspondingly to allow them.

‘During the six months I worked there, I obtained a large network of European researchers, and when I decided to write my piece I contacted some of the most prominent in the field.’

His hope was to get researchers as geographically dispersed as possible to support his proposal.

‘It’s important to point out that we haven’t taken a stand for or against GMOs. But we want every country to have the right to allow such crops — unlike now, when they’re only entitled to ban them.’

However, a national decision to allow GMOs will require prior approval of the crop by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

According to Eriksson, the proposal would allow countries to benefit from new plant varieties with properties of high value in national terms. It would also reduce the pressure on the EU Commission, which would no longer have to make decisions (or avoid doing so) that contravene the political will in several EU countries.

‘Risk assessment should, just like today, be EU-led under the auspices of the EFSA,’ Dennis Eriksson believes.

Europe would thus make assessment comprehensive and consistent, with more resources and highly qualified, independent experts. The article’s authors adopt no position on exactly what the new legislation should say. Nevertheless, according to Eriksson, there are two solutions.

‘One is to remove the EU joint vote on GM crops altogether. If a crop has been approved by the EFSA, each country will then decide for itself whether growing it is approved or prohibited within its own borders.’

In the second option, the EU joint voting procedure is maintained. If a crop is approved by a qualified majority, the decision will apply throughout the EU. But individual countries will also now be entitled to ban its cultivation. However, if a crop were to be voted down by a qualified majority, there would be an unconditional halt in cultivation in the Union. If no majority is reached, the proposed mechanism will come into force — that is, member states themselves will be allowed to decide whether to approve cultivation.

According to the signatories, their proposals would provide more predictable conditions for farmers and the market alike. Countries that so wish would be able to pave the way for varieties with a range of desirable properties. There might, for example, be varieties that reduce pesticide requirements; gluten-free cereals; and varieties that improve the nutritional and health-promoting properties of food.

Text: Per Westergård