Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are back on the agenda.
In a report published by The Royal Society, the UK’s premier science body, has called for publicly funded research into GM crop technologies.
It says the investment would allow northern Europe to become one of the ‘major bread baskets of the world’.
The Government’s chief scientist John Beddington has also quickly come out in support of growing GM crops in the UK. In addition, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is due to start a 'dialogue project to explore the subject of GM with consumers'.
Whether or not this is a coordinated push on the part of Government to gain public acceptance of GM technology, there is already plenty of private sector and international pressure.
The only legislative restriction left is the European Union, which at present controls the approval process for any new GMOs.
The Dutch proposal
But under proposals being put forward by the Netherlands, the objections of other member states to approving new varieties of GM may soon be bypassed.
Once a particular GM crop has received EU health and safety approval, the Dutch want the final decision on whether to allow the crop to be cultivated to be left to individual member states: effectively, a re-nationalisation of GM policy.
Member states can already block GM by invoking a so-called ‘safeguard clause’. Under this rule they can ban the use and sale of a GMO if they have justifiable reasons to consider that it poses a risk to human health or the environment.
Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg have all used the clause in recent years.
On the face of it the Dutch proposals go further by allowing individual countries to ban crops for social and economic reasons and not just health ones. It would allow a country to declare itself GM-free and bring an end to the current EU regulatory pressure to accept transgenic crops.
Many regions in Italy and Germany are already declaring themselves GM-free. Only last week Ireland said it would ban all GM crop cultivation and the Welsh Assembly has had a long-standing policy against GM.
Announcing new proposals on GM earlier this year, Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones said, ‘the Welsh Assembly Government’s long-standing position is to adopt the most restrictive policy on GM crops that is compatible with European Union and UK legislation.
‘It is not legally possible to declare Wales GM-free, but we will continue our restrictive approach,’ she said.
A fake solution
Although a number of member states, including Austria, Greece and Poland support the Dutch proposals, anti-GM campaigners believe it could actually be a dangerous move.
Greenpeace agriculture policy director Marco Contiero says the only reason the Dutch - one of the EU’s strongest supporters of GM - put forward the proposals was to break the political deadlock in Europe.
‘It’s a fake solution. It means all the political debate member states currently show at council level in Europe is going to finish. The Commission will be much more politically free to ignore it and leave it up to individual member states.
‘Formally it’s not meant to make it easier for GM in Europe but it will,’ he said.
Other campaign groups including GM-free Ireland fear it would fragment the opposition to GMOs in Europe and allow countries like the Netherlands and Spain to plant more.
It could also expose individual member states to legal action by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as countries such as the USA and Canada will be likely to challenge any bans.
‘WTO has condemned the EU for not taking decisions on GMOs in the past but it has never challenged the system used to make those decisions. If we now change the system and allow member states to make decisions then these kind of bans could be challenged under WTO rules,’ said Contiero.
Although newly re-elected European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso included them on his recent manifesto, the Dutch proposals are not known to have widespread support in Europe.
Plaid Cmyru MEP Gill Evans said the preferred option of many MEPs was to strengthen the existing legislation on GM-free zones.
‘The excuse everyone gives against declaring themselves GM-free is that it is not allowed at EU level. But that’s not true. Under existing EU rules we can make a case for restrictions in certain areas for reasons of nature conservation or biodiversity.