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GM crops: The EC allows politics to trump science

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A decision to allow member states to go their own way on genetically modified crops is a failure both to science and to the EU's principles

GM crops, winter oilseed rape
Genetically modified winter oilseed rape. Each EU member state can now decide whether to allow GM crops.

The recent decision by the European commission to give its member states the power to ban genetically modified crops on a state-by-state and crop-by-crop basis means that the EC has failed science and failed itself.

The EC plan announced in July is to give individual member states the freedom to "allow, restrict, or ban" the commercial cultivation of GM crops in their jurisdictions. The EU will still need to authorise the growth of these crops as it always has, however now individual member states can ban production even if the EU says they are safe to grow and consume.

On the one hand, the EC is putting its faith in what it calls its own "science-based GM authorisation system", and on the other, saying member states can ignore the science and plough on regardless with anti-GM bans.

With one decision, the EC has cast doubt on its own authorisation system; has refused to back the overwhelming scientific evidence and has handed an own-goal to those who would ban GM crops without any research into their potential benefits, or indeed problems.

Undoubtedly, the GM authorisation system in painstakingly slow. Take for instance the eventual go-ahead received by German chemical company BASF for the production of its Amflora potato variety. With altered starch-producing properties which makes it easier to extract the starch for industrial uses, the company spent 13 years guiding it through the European testing and authorisation procedures.

However, despite the system being slow, there can be little doubt that it is very thorough and very conservative in its decision making. Some GM opponents will, of course, question the result, but there can be few among them who can claim the process is not thorough enough.

With this EC decision, the "science-based authorisation system" remains intact but will now be just the first stage in the authorisation process. Once a thorough scientific investigation has been carried out at EU level, GM crop producers will face a new challenge: that of a heterogenous mix of member states with a range of views on GMOs.

The obstacles at member-state level cannot be science-based: the science will have been tested at EU level and found to be sound (or it would not have reached the member states). The obstacles at member-state level will be political, social and opinion-based.

In announcing the change of course, the Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, John Dalli, confirmed that this decision had nothing to do with science: "Granting genuine freedom on grounds other than those based on a scientific assessment of health and environmental risks also necessitates a change to the current legislation. I stress that, the EU-wide authorisation system, based on solid science, remains fully in place."

In Ireland, for example, the Green party is now a minority partner in the government and holds considerable sway in its decision making. Good news for the environment perhaps, but the party has secured a promise to declare Ireland a "GM-free zone".

Trevor Sargent, Ireland's Green party's spokesman on agriculture, fisheries and food, says the proposals from Europe "facilitate" the delivery of the GM-free zone but he notes: "GM plants do not respect borders and countries like Ireland who are choosing to opt for a GM-free strategy must be facilitated to do so."

Quite how any country could be facilitated in this way is unclear. News from the US last week tells us that GM canola is capable of spreading over large distances, so it raises the question of what would happen if two EU member states sharing a land border were to take opposite views on a particular GM crop.

In addition to a failure to stand up for science, the EC decision appears to be at odds with one of the key goals of the European Union – that of being a free market without border controls between its member states. The proposed amendments to GM policy will lead to a segregation policy with pro-GM and anti-GM states taking sides.

As John Dalli said, the authorisation system based on solid science "remains fully in place". It's just a pity that the EC won't stand up for the results of that system, preferring instead to pass the buck to national governments who will be permitted to ban GM crops with zero science to back up their decision.

Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at University College Cork, Ireland. He also writes the Communicate Science blog where the original version of this article appears