The European Council and Parliament have clinched a political agreement to allow EU member states to either restrict – or ban outright – the cultivation of crops containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) in their own countries, even in cases where the product has been approved at the EU level.

“The agreement, if confirmed, would meet member states’ consistent calls since 2009 to have the final say on whether or not GMOs can be cultivated on their territory, in order to better take into account their national context, and above all, the views of their citizens,” said Vytenis Andriukaitis, who serves as the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

The deal is still subject to confirmation by both the full European Parliament as well as the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER), which is tasked with preparing the European Council’s work. It will also need approval from individual EU member states.

A Parliament plenary vote is expected in January 2015, and the directive itself would enter into force in spring of that same year.

New European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, had previously pledged in his July confirmation speech to the Parliament that he would “make sure that the procedural rules governing the various authorisations for GMOs are reviewed,” adding that he would not want his Commission to be able to take a decision running in contrary to what most member states want.

Back and forth

The move is the latest step in a long-running saga about the rules governing genetically modified crops in the 28-nation bloc. The European Commission, which is the EU’s executive branch, had originally put forward a proposal in July 2010 on the subject, after 13 member states asked it to do so in June 2009.

The text sparked two years of debate, with ministers ultimately failing to reach agreement on a draft text. That same year, the European Court of Justice ruled that national policy on the cultivation of biotech crops could not be determined at the member state level. (See BioRes, 14 September 2012)

After having gone quiet for a couple of years, the process recently began to pick up again, with the European Parliament’s environment committee backing a version of the plan in November, a few months after EU environment ministers had already green-lighted a different text regarding the national bans back in June. (See BioRes, 19 June 2014)

Biotechnology in agriculture has long been a lightning rod for controversy in Europe, with opponents citing concerns for health implications and biodiversity risks. Even under current EU rules, only two strains of GMOs have been granted approval for cultivation in the now 28-nation bloc, with one being a maize variety and the other a potato.

The latter is no longer grown in Europe, while the former – Monsanto’s GMO maize M810 – has been subject to national “safeguard” bans on behalf of several EU member states, on the grounds of assessed risks to human health or the environment. The maize crop is grown in Spain and Portugal.

While the national bans can target cultivation, current EU rules on the import of such products will still apply. Various GMO crops can be imported in the EU bloc, subject to approval, though these are primarily used as animal feed.

Environmental, industry groups speak out

Under the deal, member states can pass legally binding rules prohibiting or restricting the cultivation of these crops, using environmental objectives as a reason. However, such objectives would only be able to involve those environmental impacts outside those that were cited in the EU-wide scientific risk assessment – a provision that has irked environmental groups.

“Environment ministers say they want to give countries the right to ban GM crop cultivation on their territory, but the text they have agreed does not give governments a legally solid right,” said Marco Contiero, the agriculture policy director at Greenpeace EU.

The fact that separate evidence of environmental harm is not allowed as justification for the ban, he said, opens up those countries interested in using a national ban “exposed to legal attacks by the biotech industry.”

Regarding the question of cross-contamination the deal also says that member states should make sure that GMO crops do not contaminate non-biotech products, and that special attention should be paid near country borders.

Countries can also ban GMOs “by crop or trait,” in what analysts say will save member states the headache of repeating the same process several times. This request was reportedly that of the European Parliament version of the legislation, according to EU Observer, though the final version did not grant lawmakers’ earlier request that countries be allowed to prohibit GMOs entirely.

Industry groups have been similarly riled at the move, saying that it opens the door to EU member states instituting bans on products that have already passed rigorous scientific assessments.

EuropaBio, the EU’s major biotechnology industry group, has called the pact a “non-cultivation agreement” with director for agricultural biotechnology Bart Späth criticising it as giving member states a platform “to formally reject safe products which are approved at European level.”