Moving Towards GM Crop Approval in Europe?
A French court ruled yesterday that a ban on cultivation of Monsanto’s MON810 corn—genetically engineered to produce the natural Bt toxin poisonous to some insects—lacked a legal basis. While the corn variety was approved by the European Union in 1998, many EU Member States had imposed local bans. The ruling by the Council of State court, France’s highest administrative court, held that a ban “can only be taken by a member state in case of an emergency or if a situation poses a major risk” to the health of people or animals, or to the environment. French Agriculture Minister Stephane LeFoll, has indicated that the government intends to appeal the ruling. French President François Holland said that the moratorium on growing MON810 would remain in place despite the ruling.
Despite regulatory approval for a limited number of varieties by the European Union, resistance to genetically modified crops remains high among European consumers. As a result, many governments have imposed local bans. In addition to France, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland all have bans in GM crops in place. Currently, MON810 is cultivated on a small scale only in Portugal and Spain. The only other GM crop to receive regulatory approval in Europe is BASF’s Amflora potato, which is genetically engineered for higher starch content. But despite regulatory approval, Amflora is not currently grown in Europe.
Given the high level of popular resistance among European consumers, it seems unlikely that genetically engineered crops will hit European fields any time in the near future. But opponents of genetically modified agriculture caution that the new Transatlantic trade negotiations could weaken European regulatory frameworks and overturn European bans on importing a wide variety of US products containing GMOs, including “hormone-treated beef, pork produced from hormone-fed pigs, and genetically modified corn and soybeans.” American negotiators maintain that such restrictions constitute a hidden form of protectionism. But European leaders—most notably French President François Hollande—continue to maintain that the GMO ban is not up for negotiation. And given the failure of the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement mechanism to resolve the ongoing standoff, there seems little reason to believe that bilateral negotiations would be any more successful.
What might emerge instead is an interesting tension within the European Union. The structure of the European Union is complicated. A professional secretariat (The European Commission) oversees the day-to-day affairs of the EU. The Member States are represented in the European Council. And the people of Europe elect the European Parliament, which is supposed to represent the people directly. In reality, the European Commission has historically been the most powerful actor in the EU, and the European Parliament has been the weakest. What could be emerging, then, is a situation in which the Commission pursues a more liberalized trade path, while the Council seeks to block the same path. Meanwhile, individual Member States appear to be pursuing their own paths.
And for their part, European consumers appear to remain hesitant to consume GM food. Mandatory labeling, in other words, would likely scuttle any easing of regulatory policy. Unless agricultural biotechnology can deliver on the promises of its proponents and show a real benefit to the end consumer, it seems unlikely that European consumers will move to accept the technology.