Fresh EU deal paves way for GM crops in England

Published on Tuesday, 17 June 2014 09:18
Written by Daniel Mason

The EU has paved the way for its member states to have greater individual control over whether to allow the cultivation of genetically modified crops - meaning GM maize could be grown commercially in the UK from next year.

But the agreement, reached by European environment ministers last week following four years of political deadlock, has been criticised by both the pro and anti-GM lobbies.

Environmental campaigners have warned of a "looming threat" to English farmers, even as the biotech industry claimed the EU's failure to offer its full support was damaging economic growth and scientific innovation.

The new deal was supported by all member nations except Belgium and Luxembourg, and still requires the approval of the European parliament.

If it becomes law, it will end the need for EU-wide agreement on each GM crop.

Instead, once a crop variety has been authorised as safe by Brussels, countries that support GM cultivation will be able to go ahead while those that are opposed opt out.

It means the UK government, which has voiced its support for biotechnology, could give the green light for farmers in England to use GM - though the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales will still enforce a ban.

Currently no GM products are grown commercially in the UK.

Owen Paterson, the Conservative environment secretary, said the latest development was a "real step forward in unblocking the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops, which is letting down our farmers and stopping scientific development".

He added that the change would "boost scientific research and investment in the UK, a key part of our long-term economic plan".

However, the deal failed to win the full backing of either side in the long-running debate over the controversial farming method.

The anti-GM campaign group GeneWatch UK said two varieties of maize engineered to be resistant to the weedkiller RoundUp - manufactured by the biotech firms Monsanto and Syngenta and awaiting EU authorisation - could soon be grown in England.

"The UK government has colluded with commercial lobbyists to fast track RoundUp Ready GM maize into England, despite the expected harm to British wildlife such as birds and butterflies caused by blanket spraying of these crops with weedkiller," claimed its director, Dr Helen Wallace.

"If some farmers in England press ahead with GM cultivation as a result of this proposal, conventional and organic farmers across the country will face the unnecessary risk of loss of markets due to contamination with GM."

The Soil Association's policy director, Peter Melchett, said English farmers faced a "looming threat to their business".

"In future a committed pro-GM secretary of state like Owen Paterson could take the decision to make England a GM country," he said, adding that it would be difficult for a later government to reverse it.

"If these new EU proposals are finally adopted, most countries in the EU, including Scotland and Wales, will remain GM free, as countries like France and Poland already are.

"England, along with possibly one or two other European member states, risks getting a reputation as the GM centre of Europe."

Melchett argued this could see English farmers lose export markets - citing as evidence a proposed Russian ban on GM imports, China's decision not to grow modified food, and claims that US and Canadian farmers lost $100s of millions in exports when they started cultivating GM.

Yet the industry body EuropaBio - the European Association for Bioindustries - also came out against the EU deal allowing countries to enforce unilateral bans on GM.

It said 15 years of GMO cultivation in many countries globally had shown them to be "at least as safe" as their conventional counterparts.

And it warned in a press release that the EU's failure to give full support to the biotech industry was "the single most damaging element for growth, innovation, investment climate and, indeed, consumer confidence".

"To renationalise a common EU policy, based on non-objective grounds, is a negative precedent and contrary to the spirit of the single market," said EuropaBio chair Andre Goig.

"In particular it would allow member states to formally reject a technology on non-scientific grounds, which sets a dangerous precedent and sends a negative signal or innovative industries considering whether or not to operate in Europe.

"In the end it should be up to farmers to decide what they want to plant in their fields."

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