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Prospects for GMO products in the EU

After the forceful and successful management of the agricultural dossier by the French Presidency in the second half of 2008, it was inevitable that the agenda for the Czech Presidency would be a light one, and this is also reflected in the activity level for this blog since the beginning of this year.

Nonetheless, even in a context where most attention is focused on dealing with the financial crisis and the strengthening recession hitting Europe, Europe’s agricultural and food industries continue to be required to address regulatory issues affecting the governance of the sector. One of these issues concerns the regulatory environment for genetically modified products (GMPs), and I am indebted to EurActiv for drawing my attention to the outcome of a meeting of the Environmental Council in early December which gave a series of political directions to the Commission on this issue.

The regulatory issues around GMOs concern the rules for approval, coexistence and labelling. I listened to an excellent plenary paper by GianCarlo Moschini at the European Association of Agricultural Economists’ Congress in Ghent last August which surveyed some of the economic implications of these rules.

The Environment Council Conclusions on GMOs were reached after a six-month process by the French Presidency which aimed to overcome the Council’s inability to take authorisation decisions on new GM products for cultivation within the EU.

The Council upheld the current approval framework while calling for the strengthening of environmental assessment and monitoring arrangements undertaken by authorisation holders. It also asked the Commission, in conjunction with the Member States, to prepare a report by January 2010 on the socio-economic implications of the release and placing on the market of GMPs.

The Council did not add anything to existing rules on co-existence (which currently put all of the onus on the farmer introducing a GM crop) while noting that the Commission will produce a report later this year on the implementation of national co-existence strategies.

The Council also did little more than reiterate the existing position on the vexed question of declaring GM-free zones. It noted that, under existing legislation, restrictions could be placed on GM cultivation in protected and sensitive areas, including prohibition, provided there was sufficient scientific justification. It also noted that GM-free zones can be created by volunary agreement, provided all concerned operators are given adequate notice. This is hardly different to the position in 2003 when the Commisison rejected a request from Upper Austria to ban the use of genetically-modified seeds.

Whether this will be sufficient to break the political impasse surrounding the approval of GMOs particularly for cultivation is a moot point. But this remains an important element in the response of European agriculture to the challenges posed by the food price crisis in the years 2006-08. We need to make use of modern biotechnology in a properly regulated way if Europe is to be able to maintain and increase its food production capacity in the years ahead.

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