Meath Chronicle (County Meath, Ireland), March 18, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Europe is still in considerable turmoil about genetically modified (GM) foods. Many countries believe the scientific uncertainties surrounding GM foods are still too large to allow GM products to be promoted and sold. Better safe than sorry, they say.]

EU [European Union] environment ministers have urged a shake-up of risk assessment and decision-making procedures used to approve new genetically-modified crops.

The development marks the latest stage in the EU's struggle to achieve a regulatory regime for GM crops that enjoys backing from all 25 member states.

In a public debate held during their council meeting in Brussels recently, ministers called almost unanimously for the European food safety authority (EFSA) to improve transparency in its scientific assessments of GM crops. Some appealed for extra assessment steps.

Several ministers urged the scrapping of comitology procedures that have allowed the European commission to end the EU's de facto moratorium on new GM crops despite opposition from many governments. In most cases the commission's approval of new crops has been based on positive scientific opinions from EFSA.

The debate was tabled by Austria, which holds the EU presidency but is also vehemently opposed to GMOs. Vienna has defied the commission and EFSA by imposing a national ban on several EU-approved crops, citing scientific uncertainty.

"There are considerable shortcomings in our ability to assess GMOs," Spanish minister Cristina Narbona Ruiz said in opening the debate. Most of her colleagues followed in a similar vein.

UK minister Elliot Morley offered dissent. Assessment procedures were basically sound, he argued, though EFSA did need to be "more direct and open" and make its opinions "more clearly presented and more robustly argued".

Some ministers went further, urging better long-term monitoring of the effects of new crops and more assessment of the indirect effects of GM products. Belgium refloated the idea of an EU-wide liability and insurance regime for damage done by GM crops.

Several member states wanted more independent verification of scientific studies carried out by industry and a clear framework for resolving differences of opinion between EFSA and member state assessment bodies.

Many ministers called for greater use of the precautionary principle in GM decisions, and for coexistence rules that would unambiguously allow GM-free zones.

Austria is to hold conferences on both issues next month and ministers will revisit the issue at their next meeting in June.

Potentially equally significant was the level of opposition from several ministers to the use of EU comitology rules to approve GM applications. The procedures, which are also used in many other areas of EU policy, are currently under review by the EU's general affairs council.

"We should think hard about changing the rules," Italian minister Altero Matteoli said. "There hasn't been a simple majority of member states in favour [of certain applications], let alone a qualified majority, but even so the commission decides to give an approval."

Responding to the debate, EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said EFSA was "still finding its feet" and hinted support for changes to risk assessment procedures.

"Certain changes may be beneficial" to make the system "as comprehensive and transparent as possible," he said. Increasing confidence in the scientific process first might make the comitology procedure less contentious, he said.


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