London (8th May, 2006)
– Early in April, the Austrian Presidency of the EU took the lead in
conceptualising and planning an EU-wide meeting in Vienna on co-existence,
although DG Agriculture was officially a co-sponsor and did participate in
the coordination. The Austrian government is well-known for its antipathy
to agricultural biotechnology; their views were clearly apparent from the
outset as regards the agenda, the choice of speakers and the participants.
Thus, despite the “Freedom of Choice” conference title, the actual selection of agenda topics re-opened debate in many areas that have already been resolved by existing legislation: the right of consumers to choose (already guaranteed by GM labelling rules), and safety both as regards health and the environment (aspects fully covered by the legislation for placing on the market). There were many speakers who were known to be hostile to the idea of any GM crop whatsoever being grown (or even consumed) in Europe, with the list of invitees reflecting a similar bias. Not a single farmer with actual co-existence experience was invited to speak. Indeed, farmers with their own GMO experience were not specifically invited to attend although several ideologically opposed to GMOs groups were encouraged to send representatives.
The contrasts between the opening statements from Commissioners Fischer-Boel and Dimas demonstrated a potentially significant conflict in the Commission regarding GM policy.
Mrs. Fischer-Boel confirmed her unambiguous support for existing Commission policy regarding co-existence:
• EU-wide co- existence legislation is neither appropriate nor possible at this point (farming decisions should be made as close as possible to the farm level, and there is not yet enough experience with Member State measures to determine if the single market is affected)
• Civil liability should be left to the Member State level
• “GM-free” regions are only appropriate where co-existence is not possible
• The Commission will issue a new progress report in 2008 and will continue to pursue research into best practice etc.
Commissioner Dimas, by contrast, made a general attack on GMO, including voicing his opinion that EU consumers “do not want them and farmers will not grow them”. He also made the three statements not appearing in his published speech:
• “Suicide seeds” are being sold (this is not correct).
• Small farmers are being driven out of business by GM cultivation (most of the millions of GM farmers are actually small-scale farmers)
• The rainforest is being destroyed in order to plant GMOs (GMOs per se are not responsible for pressure to bring more land into cultivation).
Mr. Dimas stated that Member States should be able to implement their own co-existence measures and attacked the EU’s existing system of authorising new GMOs for placing on the market. He also stated that co-existence measures must be aimed at protecting the environment; this contradicts the long-standing Commission policy that environmental issues are dealt with in the authorisation process.
While some delegates unleashed extremely partisan and shrill diatribes against GMOs, much of the plenary presentations were occupied with reports by national representatives presenting details of how their national co-existence measures might work. However, this was largely theoretical because, while thousands of hectares of GM maize are cultivated in Spain, other Member States grow only limited areas of GM crops.
One potentially significant issue which surfaced several times during the conference was the need for adventitious presence thresholds for the content of approved GMOs in conventional seeds. Interestingly, there was fairly broad support for establishing thresholds, though without any detailed discussion of practical levels, for which crops, etc.
The joint closing remarks from Commissioner Fischer-Boel and Josef Pröll (Austrian Federal Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management) included the following highlights:
• Farmers should be able to choose traditional, organic, or GM production.
• There remains a need to look for ways to improve the EU’s GM decision-making process regarding product approvals.
• “There was broad agreement that common labelling thresholds for seeds are necessary”.
• There is a need for more field experience to supplement the models and simulation data.
• It was recognised that even organic crops must have thresholds for AP, though some would like the level to be lower than the 0.9% for conventional products.
• The debate on Co-existence will continue in the Council, which will express its opinion in the coming months.