EU debates GMOs at the highest levels
GMOs, Food and Farming campaign

The two high level working groups are those of the French Presidency and of President Barroso.

1 - French Presidency working group on GMOs

The French Presidency has set up a working group to look at a broad range of issues around how to improve the risk assessment for GMOs. The group will be looking at a range of questions and suggestions for improvements and is set to make its proposals to the Environment Council in December. The issues are:

*improving the environmental assessment;
*taking into account socio-economic criteria;
*widening the scientific expertise to evaluate risks; and
*taking into account certain sensitive and/or protected areas as GM Free Zones.

In addition the group will discuss seed thresholds for adventitious and technically unavoidable GM content.This group could represent an opportunity to address failings in the implementation of EU GMO laws.

Download Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace's recommendations here.

It is unclear what progress this group is likely to make. Some Member States are very pro-GM whilst others are more cautious. There is a danger that this group will fail to agree. This failure could be aided by Mr Barroso's initiative, outlined below.

2 - Barroso's sherpas

This summer, President Barroso of the European Commission wrote to the Heads of State and Governments of all Member States asking them to send a representative to Brussels to be a part of a political working group, also known as the Sherpa group. This group consists of high ranking officials and is chaired by Barroso's Head of Cabinet, Mr Joao Vale de Almeida. The membership of this group is not public, nor is its workplan or objectives, nor the outcomes of its meeting. However Friends of the Earth Europe has obtained these documents that can be downloaded below.

The President of the Commission has basically bypassed not only his own Commissioners for Environment, Agriculture and Health but also National Ministers who are responsible for the GMO issue.

The sherpa group is looking at speeding up the approvals process for GMOs and bringing it more into line with the US. The US has complained that the 2.5 years the EU takes to approve a GMO is too slow whilst the biotech industry and other GM proponents in Europe say that the long time means that the EU lagging behind the rest of the world. However, Europe is far from the slowest in the world. It is the US which is considerably faster than any other major GMO growing country:

*The US takes 15 months to approve GMOs, but a safety assessment is only carried out if the company presents evidence that this is needed. Unsurprisingly no company has done this to date. GMO commercialization in the US therefore happens under a total absence of health and safety procedures.

*China follows a strict precautionary approach on GMOs, much closer to the EU system and also takes about 2.5 years for approval.

*Argentina takes on average 3 years to approve GMOs, and

*Brazil takes longer still, from 3 to 5 years on average, and has a regulatory procedure closer to the EU than the US.

The sherpa's second meeting ended with a clear steer for participants to talk to their Heads of State and Government to 'have a richer debate'. Participants were reminded that Environment Ministers from the member states were meeting in October and December, in a move that seems to invite the participants to go back to their Heads of Government to tell the Environment Minister what to do in order to allow GMOs in to Europe.

Mr Barroso's office has also decided that:

*That the public is just "ill informed" about GMOs.

*EU GMO laws for imports and the rate of GMO approvals are a "threat to agriculture". This ignores all evidence to the contrary, more information here.

*That there is a "growing interest in using GMOs inside the EU". This is despite five countries, most recently France, having banned the only GMO (Monsanto's maize) authorised for cultivation in the EU. GMO cultivation in 2007 happened on a mere 0.119% of agricultural land in Europe.

Mr Barroso's office will now write to Heads of State and Governments in November, just before Environment Ministers meet to conclude on the French Presidency group's discussions, to tell them what the Commission plans next.

*The list of sherpas here
*The Chairman's conclusions from the first meeting on 17 July 2008 here

*and from the second meeting on 10 October 2008 here.

This determination to get GMOs into Europe comes from the Commission's close links to the industry itself. The WTO GMO dispute panel's final ruling did not put Europe's biosafety rules into question, nor the right of individual GMOs to be banned by Member States. The European public has repeatedly stated it does not want to eat GMOs. The American public is also beginning to call for more information, and labelling, which suggests that the tide is turning against GMOs even in the US. It seems that as the biotech industry is losing popularity in the US it is trying even harder to force its products into Europe.

Friends of the Earth has previously published research on the Commission's links to the industry, available here.

Other resources

Read the Soil Association's recent briefing on the growing American rejection of GMOs here.

Read FoE Europe's analysis on zero tolerance and asynchronous approvals, here.