Risks are Assessed Case-by-case
The Czech Republic is in the eye of the storm in the confrontation between supporters and opponents of GMOs (see also page 20). EuroBiotechNews spoke with Libor Ambrozek, Minister for the Environment of the Czech Republic, about the postponed decision on Monsanto's application to approve of its Bt maize.
What were the reasons to hand the decision over to an independent expert group?
The administrative procedure of assessing the applications for the use of GMOs is in every case complex, that is to ensure that all the potential risks and benefits are considered. The Competent Authority handling the applications and regulating the use of GMOs in the Czech Republic is the Department of Environmental Risks at the Ministry of the Environment (MoE). It co-operates with the Ministry of Health in respect of risks for human health and with the Ministry of Agriculture as regards the agricultural risk, animal health, crops and feed stuffs. Advisory body to the MoE is the Czech Commission for the Use of GMOs and Products. The marketing approval for Monsanto´s Bt maize issued by the Department of Environmental Risks in March 2003 was rather limited. It covered only planting and processing, but not import and export of the maize. According to the opinion of the Ministry of the Agriculture, strict isolation distances were required for fields with Bt maize. Monsanto appealed against the restrictive conditions of the approval. On the opposite side, Greenpeace, appealed against the approval as such. Both appeals were examined by the committee of lawyers and I consequently repealed the approval because the conditions were insufficiently substantiated. The case was referred back to the department to re-negotiate and substantiate the conditions of the use of Bt maize with the Ministry of Agriculture.
Who is in this expert group and when do you expect a decision?
Members of the Commission for the use of GMOs are representatives of administrative authorities, scientists and representatives of NGOs. The list of the members is published on the website of the MoE. A new decision should be issued at the end of September.
How does the MoE consider the risks from 'cross-pollination'?
Risk are always assessed case-by-case. As far as maize is concerned, cross-pollination could present a risk to neighbouring farmers as regards potential contamination of their final product. The environmental risks considered to be low. Maize has no sexually compatible relatives in the indigenous flora of the Czech Republic. It does not survive winters and the seeds of maize used by farmers are hybrids, which refers to the special technology of seed production. To minimize potential economic losses from the admixtures of GM in non-GM crops, the Ministry of Agriculture in co-operation with the MoE prepares detailed guidelines for the coexistence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming in accordance with the recommendation of European Commission from July 2003.
Can you characterize the public opinion on GM food in the Czech Republic?
Public opinion on GM food in the Czech Republic is about the same as in other European countries. The public supports labelling of GMO products. The genetically modified crops that are on the market in other countries do not bring any advantage for consumers, so the public does not see any specific reason to buy them.
Do you share environmentalists' claims that Monsanto uses the Czech Republic as a key to open the whole EU GMO market?
The applications for GM crops submitted by Monsanto in the Czech Republic and approved by the MoE are the same as in other EU member states. The MoE approved field trials with Bt maize MON 810, which has already been granted marketing approval in the EU, and field trials with Roundup Ready maize which is also tested in EU member states. Field trials with Roundup Ready wheat applied for by Monsanto have not been approved of. The marketing approval for Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans is equivalent to the authorization already granted in the EU.
Thank you very much, Mr. Ambrozek!