Europe argues GM maize ban

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Jason Ball at Natureheads.com

I wrote to my MEPs last month, when I learned that UK votes might be used to force a block on individual countries wishing to ban Genetically Modified Organisms. GMOs could be made immune to national trade barriers, in the interest of Europe-wide conformity, the free market and all that. As it happens, that’s also in the interest of the gene patent and GM crop companies!

The Council of the European Union (ministers of member states) last week voted to allow Hungary to keep a ban on the GM crop MON810 maize – which will support the right for nations to ban trade on a GM product – and as the Greens pointed out, the Council had already demonstrated this before. (Point being that although the European Commission wishes to conform to the World Trade Organisation judgement – that goes against democratic process.)

UK ministers insisted on supporting an unrestricted GM market – why? Could it be that they have been convinced that the best way to spin money out of the farming industry in future is to ensure the United Kingdom sets a firm grasp on biotechnology and a dominant place in the gene patent industry?

Positions of MEPs

Unilateral bans, the European Commission recommended, should be illegal. The UK Labour government agrees. However, control over GMO trade by any individual nation is supported by the Greens and (perhaps an unexpected ally on this issue) UKIP who point to a lack of democratic legitimacy for the European Commission, the benefit going only to GM patent holders and what they see as the right of nations to act independently.

Only MEPs from the Green Party (Caroline Lucas), UKIP (Nigel Farage) and Liberal Democrats (Sharon Bowles) have replied to me, so far. I am still unclear on what the Conservative line is.

Sharon Bowles, Lib Dem, told me, “The reason why decisions such as these are made at the European level is that to have a network of national bans across the European Union would be a major inhibition of the internal market, and would lead to distortions. The free movement of food and feed within the EU is important and cannot realistically be achieved if safety requirements differ significantly from Member State to Member State . European regulation of food also means that the safety of the food supply in the EU is not variable from country to country. For this reason the principles, concepts and procedures that govern food safety regulation in the EU are agreed upon at the European level and apply equally throughout the Union.”

“As I understand it, the basic principle which the European Food Safety Authority has been working on in this instance is that national bans can be upheld if the soil and climactic conditions in one country are so different from the rest of the EU as to pose a significantly greater threat to human, animal and environmental health in that country than elsewhere in the EU. However there was no satisfactory scientific evidence to suggest that this was the case for Hungary , and so the original European Directive was upheld.”

Here is the correspondence I received on behalf of Caroline Lucas MEP:

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Dear Jason,

Thank you for your recent email about GMO maize MON 810. Caroline has asked me to respond on her behalf and please excuse the delay in doing so.

Like you, Caroline and the Green Party have grave concerns about the environmental and human health risks associated with GM crops. She has taken ongoing action in the European Parliament to oppose the growing of GM crops and the sale of GM products. The vast majority of EU citizens are also opposed to GM foods, so much of Caroline’s work has concentrated on the need to respect the wishes of consumers, as well as making the environmental case. The Council of Ministers has regularly abdicated all responsibility for granting licences for new GM crops and allowed the very pro-GM – and unelected – European Commission to make decisions, a situation Caroline has condemned time and again.

In relation to GMO maize MON810 and the individual bans in place in some member states, please be assured that Caroline fully supports to right to ban such crops. The European Parliament has not had the opportunity to vote on whether or not to disallow a ban, rather these decisions have been made at Commission and Council of Europe level. Back in February a standing committee could not reach a majority decision on whether or not to abolish bans so, on Monday, the Environment Council (Environment Ministers from each member state of the EU) discussed the Commission’s recommendation that any national bans be ruled unlawful and lifted.

Ahead of the vote Greens argued that Environment Ministers must wait for the proposed review of the present GMO approval system before taking any further decision. This review should lead to a substantial improvement of the risk assessment of GM crops and was supported unanimously by all 27 member states in December 2008. Caroline also worked closely with groups such as Friends of the Earth Europe to place pressure on the Ministers to vote to uphold member states’ right to have a ban in place.

She was delighted by the outcome of the Environment Council’s vote, as most member states decided to support the right for individual countries to implement a ban. However, she remains worried that the UK , on this occasion and previously, has opposed bans and is a keen advocate of GM crops. You can read her press statement on this at http://www.carolinelucasmep.org.uk/2009/03/02/environment-ministers-defy-euro-commission-to-keep-bans-on-gm-crops

Greens remain committed to delivering effective and reliable precautionary measures so that all farmers and consumers can stay free of GMOs. Please be assured that Caroline will continue to make this a priority in her work as an MEP and on the Parliament’s Environment Committee. She will also keep up pressure on the UK authorities to listen to the wishes of the majority of citizens and to expose the government’s support for the biotechnology industry.

Thank you for taking the time to raise this critical issue with Caroline and do not hesitate to get back in touch if you need any further information.

Kind regards,

Cath Miller

Constituency Coordinator and Researcher
Office of Dr Caroline Lucas
Green Party MEP for SE England

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