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Brussels (AFP) – European governments must now decide once and for all if they are to block or permit the cultivation of genetically modified crops on the continent, the European Commission said Wednesday.
The EU executive said it is now handing over to ministers a final decision on the cultivation of TC1507 corn by Pioneer after a European Court ruling that the company’s request for permission submitted in 2001 must be dealt with.
At the same time, the Commission is asking member states to accept or reject a proposal designed to end a three-year deadlock on the principle of GM cultivation, an issue that is unusually divisive in Europe.
The European Union’s 28 environment ministers meet in Brussels on December 13 and they will decide using qualified majority voting — which is weighted to take account of the bigger states.
The voting arithmetic lies behind the deadlock, because when the principle was last voted on in 2009, the heavyweights of Britain, France and Germany ended up cancelling each other out.
Asked to allow GM cultivation in the EU, but to leave space for national and even territorial opt-outs on non-health or environmental grounds, Britain was one of six backers.
France was among 12 states opposed and Germany leading a group of nine that abstained.
EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said that, following the court ruling, if there is still no clear majority either way, “the law as it stands (means) it would be deemed to have been approved.”
“Those who abstain are in effect voting in favour,” Borg said.
There are another six applications for authorisation in the Commission’s pending tray.
To date GM crops have won repeated safety approvals from experts around the world despite environmentalists’ fears that they will harm the ecosystem and ultimately human health.
The Pioneer crop, for instance, has already six times been given a clean bill of health by the European Food Standards Authority, although the EU is waiting for proof of modifications demanded of the company, and the six pending applications have also secured EFSA backing.
Environmentalists meanwhile accuse certain EFSA experts of enjoying too close links with the biotechnology industry.
Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland have each invoked safeguard measures to block the cultivation of Monsanto’s MON810 maize on their territories.
That is the only GM crop currently grown in Europe, after the makers of a GM potato abandoned commercialisation despite holding an authorisation.
There are, however, some 51 genetically-modified organisms authorised for import into the EU, the Commission citing for instance some 30 million tonnes of GM soya imported for feed use in 2012.
France’s safeguards were ruled illegal under EU law by the country’s Council of State court in August, although President Francois Hollande subsequently said the national ban would remain.
An EU source told AFP that the decision to throw the ball back at member states six months from European Parliament elections in a climate of deepening euro-mistrust was “totally irresponsible.”
“We want to allow member states to exercise their freedom to choose whether or not to cultivate GMOs on their territory,” Borg underlined, his office conceding that the Commission fears a stampede to the courts by rival companies.