Report by Franziska Achterberg, biodiversity campaigner for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament
On Thursday 17 December, the European Parliament voted to adopt five objections against authorisations of GM crops for use as food and feed in the EU. These objections, which are not binding on the European Commission, will bring the overall number of objections to 51 since December 2015.
So far, the Commission has ignored all objections and adopted the GM crop authorisations regardless (except for three cultivation authorisations). This is despite the fact that political support for these authorisations has been shrinking over the last years. The number of EU governments supporting GM crop authorisations in the Appeals Committee has gone down, whereas the number of MEPs voting in favour of the Parliament’s objections has gone up (see detailed information below).
In its EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, the Commission has said it wanted the EU to “lead the world by example and by action” on protecting biodiversity and stop the export of banned pesticides from the EU. In a letter to MEPs it also announced it would develop a new approach to the authorisation of GM crops for import “based on sustainability considerations”.
Tilly Metz, lead objector for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, said: “Von der Leyen’s Green Deal Commission continues to authorise genetically modified crops whose cultivation causes environmental devastation in the producer countries, including the destruction of rainforests. It has promised to screen GM crops for their environmental impacts but nothing is happening so far.”
“As a lucrative market for such crops, and animal feed produced from them, the EU is complicit in deforestation. It also turns a blind eye to the use of toxic herbicides on GM crops grown abroad that are banned in the EU due to the dangers they pose to nature and people’s health. This practice must end. The EU cannot claim to lead the world on the protection of nature whilst continuing to drive nature destruction outside its borders.”
Latest five objections
The Parliament is objecting to another five EU authorisations for GM crops to be used as food and feed in the EU. This includes one GM soybean and four GM maize.
Only 9 to 11 EU member states have supported these five GM crop authorisations in the Appeal Committee, representing 27 to 30% of the EU population.
The texts of the objections voted on are here (items 76 to 80). There was no plenary debate preceding the vote.
These latest objections bring the total to 51 objections against the authorisation of GM crops for use as food and feed and for cultivation in the EU, since December 2015. (The Commission only proposed three authorisations for cultivation during this period. It has not finally adopted these authorisations.)
The Parliament started the objections in December 2015 after it rejected a Commission proposal to allow national bans rather than democratising the authorisation procedure. Support has been strong across the political spectrum, as this example of a typical vote on a GM soybean objection shows (pages 8-9 of the pdf).
Shrinking political support for GM crop authorisations
The situation is typical of the voting behaviour of EU member states. In fact, since 2013, EU member state support for GM crop authorisations has decreased, according to a recent publication. In 2014, the maximum number of EU member states voting in favour was 14, whereas in 2019, it was 12, according to the authors.
Since December 2015, about 370 to 525 MEPs have voted against GM crop authorisations. The number of MEPs supporting the objections has increased over time, the trend (below) shows.
Graph showing number of MEPs voting in favour of objections to GMOs (vertical axis) and number of objections reached (horizontal axis).
Standing in for Tilly Metz, MEP Sara Matthieu explained the Parliament’s concerns with regard to the latest five authorisations during an ENVI Committee meeting on 30 November. She said:
“Despite our concerns and those of the Member States, nothing has changed in the authorisation process and the way that EFSA and the Commission take decisions.
“Firstly, despite the fact that, on numerous occasions, we have called for the assessment of herbicide tolerant GM plants to also thoroughly assess the herbicide residues and any breakdown products, this is still not done. This leaves a dangerous gap in the risk assessment, especially given that glufosinate, one of the herbicides, is toxic for reproduction.
“Secondly, there appears to be no improvement in terms of properly assessing the toxicity and allergenicity of Bt toxins, which are produced by many GM plants to kill pest insects, such as moths and butterflies.
“Thirdly, as you know, there is never a qualified majority of Member States in favour of authorisation. The standing committee results for these 5 GMO objections point to a very low level of support for authorisation.
“For example, for the stacked GM maize on the agenda today: 14 Member States voted against authorisation (representing 35% of the EU population), 4 Member States abstained (representing 37% of the EU population), whilst only 9 MS voted in favour (representing only 27% of the EU population) How it is democratically acceptable that the Commission continues to authorise?
“Finally, whilst the EU advocates for the protection of the environment and the fight against climate change to be at the top of the global agenda, it continues to foster deforestation and biodiversity destruction through its imports of GMOs. We know, for example, that the import of GM soybeans drives deforestation in countries such as Brazil and Argentina, undermining the international agreements that the EU supports – the Paris agreement, Sustainable Development Goals etc.
“The only positive step forward from the Commission appears to be its commitment to develop some sort of sustainability criteria around the authorisation of GMOs – I would like to ask the Commission representative here: when will this be ready and how to you plan to include and consult the Parliament?”
A new approach by the Commission?
In September, Executive Vice-President Timmermans had told MEPs the Commission was “reflecting on a new approach that is aligned to the political ambition set by the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy”. He said the Commission would “continue processing the outstanding applications for GM food and feed under existing rules to uphold its legally binding commitments, and at the same time, the Commission will encourage applicants to wait pending a future approach based on sustainability considerations”.
However, during the ENVI Committee debate on the latest five objections, Sabine Jülicher, Director for Food Safety at the European Commission’s DG SANTE, did not say applicants for GM crop authorisations should wait. She said: “Indeed, in the context of the European Green Deal, the objective of the Farm-to-Fork Strategy is to enable a transition to a sustainable EU food system. The Commission will present a legislative proposal for a framework on sustainable food systems by the end of 2023. So reflections have commenced on these sustainability criteria, and as usual when the Commission is making a proposal there will be possibility for involvement in the conception of the act, and obviously as it is conceived as a proposal we will be discussing with the co-legislator on this proposal. However in the meantime the Commission will continue to comply with our legal obligations and process pending applications for GM food and feed provided obviously they have been found safe.”
See the recording of the ENVI Committee discussion from 14:18 here; Ms Jülicher’s answer starts at 14:26.