Agriculture, Forestry and Food Environment

Draft proposals on genetically modified food and feed: improving democratic choice in the authorisation process?

27 April 2015

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly Research Service

Image of Berlaymont building, Brussels
Image from Flickr by Amio Cajander. Licenced under Creative Commons

The draft proposal

On 22 April, the European Commission tabled proposals to reform the authorisation process for Genetically Modified (GM) food and feed, amending regulation 1829/2003. President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, identified this as one of the priority dossiers for his mandate, and as such the proposals have been long anticipated.  The draft proposals give flexibility to allow individual Member States to restrict or prohibit GM feed and food (such as soy bean and maize) in their own territory. This would be based on grounds other than health and the environment, elements that are assessed by the EFSA (the EU’s food safety watchdog) whilst ensuring that the measures are in line with the rules on the internal market and with the institutional framework of the EU.

The reforms run parallel to the recent reform of the GMO authorisation for cultivation process which has given Member States stronger legal rights to ban the cultivation of GMOs on their territories, even if they are approved at EU-level.

Under the current system, GM food and feed are approved at EU-level. It is possible for these products to be approved even if there is not a weighted majority of Member State representatives in favour of authorisation in the Council as where there is no majority the Commission can authorise the product.

The Commission’s stance is that the current legal framework for decision making on GM food and feed needs to be amended as it does not allow for individual concerns of Member States to be taken into account. The Commission states that the revision, as proposed, is in the interest of ‘democratic choice’.

Under the draft proposals, each Member State wishing to ban such products would have to justify the move on a case-by-case basis ‘taking into account the GMO [genetically modified organism] in question, the type of measure envisaged and the specific circumstances at national or regional level that can justify such an opt out’. Any measures adopted by Member States ‘have to be reasoned, based on compelling grounds … and they have to respect the principles of proportionality and non-discrimination’.

It is important to highlight that the EU relies on imports for 75% of its animal feed with 90% of its compound feed containing GM materials (Agrafacts- No.28-15). Therefore the new proposal has potential implications for international trade of feed and food.

Responses

The EU Food and Feed Chain partners, which includes EU farming body Copa-Cogeca and bodies representing EU feed and food manufacturers, millers and the biotech industry, has asked for the Commission to reconsider its draft plans to renationalise the GM authorisation process. They state the proposals would ‘reverse the economic achievements of the European Customs Union and the single market’. The coalition argues that ‘properly implementing the existing legislation should be the main priority for the Commission before starting further reflections on changing the current market authorisation procedure.’

Speaking on behalf of the EU Food and Feed Chain partners, Pekka Pesonen, Copa-Cogeca Secretary General warned:

[the proposals] will severely jeopardize the Internal Market for food and feed products, leading to significant job losses and lower investment in the agri-food chain in “opt-out” countries. This would cause severe distortions of competition for all EU agri-food chain partners.

The coalition said the policy does not logically follow on from the situation with GM cultivations as while very few GM crops are currently grown in the EU, there is already a large annual trade in GM imports. To date, there are 58 GM food and feed products authorised in the EU, mostly for animal feed. The EU imports over 33 million tonnes of GM soya beans, worth more than €12 billion (£8.6bn) each year.

Anti-GM campaigners have also voiced concerned on the Commission’s intentions. They fear that a ban on GM crop imports would be vulnerable to legal challenges – whether at the European Court of Justice or the World Trade Organisation – and might call into question the compromise on GM crop cultivation within the EU.

Friends of the Earth campaigner, Mute Schimpf, has accused the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, of breaking a commitment to make the decision-making process more democratic stating that ‘his new draft law is a smokescreen which fails to deal with the democratic deficit at the centre of the debate on GM foods’.

Agrafacts (No.28-15) reports that four Ambassadors from the EU’s key trading partners – the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil – have expressed ‘serious concerns’ about the Commissions plans to revise approvals of GM imports with fears that it would directly impact international trade of feed and food and trigger trade disruptions.

DG SANTE officials have stated that policing any restrictions would be a ‘challenge’, highlighting that countries invoking a ban would be responsible for enforcing it (Agra facts No.31-15).

NFU’s chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, Dr. Helen Ferrier, said:

‘Pig and poultry sectors are especially vulnerable, where feed is 55-65% of cost of production. Any increase in price of feed would put significant strain on food producers and would risk making the EU uncompetitive.’

Next Steps

The proposal will be sent to the European Parliament and the Council as well as to the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, which will consider it via the ordinary legislative procedure.

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