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EU Commission: First suggestions for a new gene technology policy

(10 May 2010) In the future, EU Member States should be able to decide for themselves on the cultivation of genetically modified plants. By making changes to shared laws on gene technology, the EU Commission intends to overcome the political blockade that has been in place for years.

In an internal strategy paper, the EU Commission presented the first suggestions for a new gene technology policy that already had been signalised by the Commission President Barroso prior to his re-election in August. In the future, Member States should be empowered to allow or prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) plants on their territory. Nonetheless, the general approval applied to GM plants should continue to be decided in an EU-wide, binding procedure based on a scientific safety assessment.

With regard to approval and cultivation, the Commission has aimed the segmentation of competence between the EU and individual Member States towards the revival of gene technology politics that have been deadlocked for years. Currently, ‘gene-technology-friendly’ and ‘-unfriendly’ countries block each other and thereby prevent decisions that are both clear and comprehensible to the public.

The Reuters news agency cites the strategy paper as recommending for the future that the cultivation of GM plants become easier for countries with the intention to utilise such plants, while countries with the intention to keep their agriculture ‘GMO-free’ be allowed to issue appropriate prohibitions. Statements made in the paper towards the Commission postulate “positive impulse for plant biotechnology and the seed industry” in light of the current situation.

Rather than revise current EU legislation, which would require the agreement of the European Parliament, the European Commission will try to make policy changes "within the existing legislative framework, if possible," the assessment said. The strategy paper did not address the individual routes through which speedy implementation could be reached.

The paper presented a variety of suggestions towards the constitution of a cultivation ban on a GM plant in the case that primary motivation of such a ban is political and that the plant in question already has been approved in the EU and therefore has been assessed as safe. It is conceivable, for example, to order minimum distances of 5 or 10 kilometres between fields with GM and conventional plants, which would render GMO cultivation impossible in practice. Another concept may be represented by the use of ‘socio-economic criteria’ – such as the influence on small-scale agriculture, or the image damage suffered by an affected region – as legitimisation for cultivation bans.

For the Commission, it is essential that the new regulations be compatible with the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and provoke no new conflicts, particularly with regard to the USA.

The new EU Treaty of Lisbon also could accelerate political decision-making in the approval process for GM plants. In the treaty, a new procedure is provided for the collaboration of Member States in the decision-making of the EU Commission. The details of this procedure currently are under negotiation. According to the current draft, decisions suggested by the Commission on the basis of existing laws should be directly eligible for acceptance or rejection by a qualified majority of Member States. However, in the case that no unequivocal majority among Member States is reached, the Commission then can apply its decision immediately. The duplicated and tedious voting conducted to date by the Standing Committee and the Council of Ministers would then be dispensable.


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