Politics / Law

Commission opens floodgates for GMOs

08.03.2010

Just three weeks after the new European Commission was confirmed by the European Parliament, it has freed the long-standing logjam preventing the planting of new genetically-engineered crops. On March 2nd, the Commission ended a 12-year-long authorisation halt for GM crop acreage, announcing market approval for BASF’s amylopectin-producing GM potato Amflora for industrial production and feed use. The Commission also gave the green light to the import of three GM maize hybrids for food, feed and industrial uses. The body’s new Mr. Biotech, Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli remarked: “All scientific issues, particularly those concerning safety, have been fully addressed. Any delay would have been simply unjustified.” Dalli’s comments at a press conference in Brussels made it clear the decision is nothing less than a political about-face. According to the minister, the Commission will table a solution in summer on how to combine a European authorisation system with the freedom of member states to decide on cultivation of GMOs on their own territory. That could make it easier for biotech-friendly states to go ahead with planting GMOs, even if other EU members decide not to approve the technology.

The surprise announcement stunned agribiotech proponents and opponents alike. “We feel encouraged by this decisive regulatory approach,” said Willy de Greef, Secretary General of EuropaBio, and the “approvals represent a step in the right direction, and a return to science-based decision making.” Stefan Marcinowski, a member of the Board of Executive Directors at BASF said his company hopes “that this decision is a milestone for further innovative products that will promote competitive and sustainable agriculture in Europe.”
BASF is planning to begin small-scale cultivation on 250 hectares in the Czech Republic and Germany this April, and expand it to Sweden and the Netherlands in 2011. Amflora was specifically developed to provide industry starch for production of glues, glossy paper and textiles.

Strategic move

Although surprising on the surface, the Commission’s move to approve acreage of Amflora and the import of the maize strains Mon863xNK603, Mon863xM on810xNK603, and Mon863xMon810 seemed well-prepared. On the day the Commission was approved by the vote at the European Parliament, Commission President Manuel Barroso tactically rebutted any rumours that he intended to speed up market authorisation of GMO acreage for Monsanto’s Bt maize Mon810 or BASF’s starch potato Amflora. But in fact, Barosso and the Commission seem to have been convinced in advance that biotech crops are an important step towards more sustainable production processes, as evidenced by an explanatory note in the Amflora authorisation: “(Amflora’s) genetic modification helps to optimise the production process and to save raw materials, energy and water- and oil-based chemicals,” it says.

Towards the KBBE

Sustainable production through green technologies are at the top of the EU’s new innovation agenda “Europe 2020”, which will replace the Lisbon strategy. In Barroso’s previous term, the Commission and member states ploughed huge amouunts of money into research targeted at producing GM crops that can resist climate change or generate biomass as raw material for the production of energy and chemicals. But applying the results from FP7-projects, seven plant-related EU technology platforms or the ERA-Net Plant Genomics project have been hampered by the Union’s own policies. Now the Commission has sent a first strong signal that it intends to change that situation. Opponents have reacted with fury. Greenpeace activists, backed up by Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, have announced they will call on member states to rally against the new course.

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