Open Europe Blog

Yesterday saw a debate between the EU’s Europe ministers regarding the approval of Pioneer 1507 – a strain of genetically modified maize which has been developed by US firm DuPont to be pest-resistant. This is a fascinating case which sees the clash between EU legal procedures and scientific evidence on one hand, and public opinion and green lobbying on the other.

Unbelievably, DuPont first applied for EU approval back in 2001, but due to the political resistance to GM in the EU, this application was deliberately kicked into the long grass despite six separate positive opinions from the EU’s food quango, the European Food Safety Agency. The wider context is a climate of political hostility which has resulted in Europe falling far behind the rest of the world when it comes to biotechnology – aside from Pioneer 1507 only one other GM crop has been approved in the past 15 years. The result is that biotech companies such as BASF and Monsanto have already left the EU and others could follow suit, with the loss of jobs, investment and trading opportunities.

Following a legal challenge by DuPont, the EU’s General Court ruled that the EU was breaching its own rules by not taking a decision. Opinion among member states was divided, with five states including the UK minded to vote in favour, four including Germany minded to abstain and the remaining 19 minded to vote against (a formal vote was not actually held). Despite the large number of member states opposing the approval, no qualified majority was reached either way.

Under the EU’s comitology process, when the result is indecisive, the Commission can chose to push ahead with its original proposal, and its looks set to do so (in fact during the debate the Council’s legal service indicated it would be legally obliged to).

This is undoubtedly a problematic situation. On one hand, it is good that the Commission is heeding the independent scientific recommendation issued by EFSA. As EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg argued during the debate, member states should not pick and chose when to follow such advice and when to disregard it. On the other hand it is bad from a democratic perspective when the Commission forces through something opposed by a majority of member states and public opinion – the EU was rightly slammed for proposing to ban jugs of olive oil from restaurant tables following a similarly inconclusive vote.

The case therefore illustrates the need for more flexibility in the EU on issues where member states cannot agree and where public sensitivities need to be taken into account. As UK Europe Minister David Lidington argued during the debate:

“I’ve no wish to force any country that doesn’t want to cultivate this variety of maize to do so… in the longer term the answer surely has to be some agreement under which we agree that those member states that want to have GM crops in cultivation are free to do it while those maintain a ban are free to do so as well.”

Greater flexibility for member states to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM was also one of the recommended in the recent Fresh Start report on the EU’s impact on UK Life Sciences. This would be a good compromise – that way it would be down to national governments and parliaments to decide whether to allow cultivation of GM crops – and it would be down to national politicians in favour of this to show the requisite leadership to win over public opinion.

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