Legal doubts over EU plans to give states choice on whether to grow GM

By John Vidal

Leaked documents suggest European commission proposal is vulnerable to legal actions by biotechnology companies

Europe’s plans to let countries choose for themselves whether to grow or ban GM crops would be unacceptable under EU and probably international law, says official legal advice offered to member state governments and leaked to the Guardian.

The advice is highly embarrassing for the European commission (EC) which has long advocated more openness by member states about the technology. The EC appeared to make a major concession in July when it told the 27 member states that they could decide for themselves.

But the 15-page legal document, prepared by the legal service of the EU Council of Ministers, states that the EC proposal has an “invalid legal basis” and leaves “strong doubts” about the compatibility of the proposal with EU and World Trade Organisation laws.

“This confirms that there are legal problems with the EC proposal. It must now be amended by the parliament and the member states,” said the Greenpeace GM campaigner Marco Contiero in Brussels.

However, legal experts said that far from being a defeat for the commission, the opinion gave it the political legitimacy to now push through many new GM crops. “Member states are caught between a rock and a hard place – if they accept the proposal as it stands, any bans will be extremely vulnerable to legal actions by biotechnology companies, GM farmers, world trade partners, or even the EU commission itself. But if they reject the proposal, the commission will have free reign to authorise a plethora of new GM crops for cultivation,” said Thijs Etty, assistant professor of EU law at the VU University of Amsterdam.

EU countries must now decide whether to vote down the proposal entirely, accept it as it stands, or pressure the EC to amend its text, said Etty.

The legal opinion coincides with a major new EU-wide poll showing that opposition to GM food has hardened slightly. According to the latest Eurobarometer poll, conducted in all 27 member states, 61% of people do not want to see the crops grown compared with 57% in 2007.

It further suggested that Europeans believe that GM food is fundamentally unnatural (70%), is not safe for their health or that of their family (59%), is not safe for future generations (58%), and benefits some people but puts others at risk (57%). Less than a third of those interviewed believe GM food is good for the economy.

GM in Europe

Only two GM crops can be legally grown in the EU: a GM maize strain (MON 810) was authorised for commercial cultivation in 1998 and a GM starch potato known as Amflora was authorised for cultivation and industrial processing in March 2010.

More than 20 other requests for authorisation of GMO cultivation, or for their renewal, are ongoing.

Austria, Hungary, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg have prohibited the cultivation of the GM maize MON 810 in their territories.

In addition, Austria, Luxembourg and Hungary have notified the European Commission of their decision to prohibit the cultivation of the Amflora potato. Poland has legislation in place forbidding the marketing of all GM seeds.

Spanish farmers grow around 80,000ha (198,000 acres) of GM maize.

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