As America chews over a bid to market “Frankenfish” salmon, Europe wants to drop scientific objections to genetically modified (GM) crops in a move even its backers admit leaves a strange taste.
With the GM industry and its opponents each sharpening their legal claws, European nations will debate a proposed rule change on Monday that would allow officials to accelerate authorizations for 15 new transgenic crops while letting those who want to keep them off their territories do so.
The continent is deeply divided on the GM issue, which has crept back up the agenda after Germany’s BASF “accidentally” sowed seed from an unauthorized potato in Sweden and a furor in Britain about milk and meat from cloned cattle entering the food chain.
One European Union official describes such “Frankenfood” fears as “anecdotal” to the talks between farming ministers, but others say a move designed to protect the EU from World Trade Organization prosecution will leave consumers in the dark.
“Surely this should be about science first – and then consumer choice,” says a diplomatic source from one of the big European nations.
“If member states are not allowed to block GM cultivation on scientific or environmental grounds, what grounds can they use, and won’t these (also) be challenged in the WTO?” says a diplomat from another leading EU country.
Two GM crops are authorized in Europe – a strain of maize developed by US giant Monsanto and an earlier BASF potato variety – but a batch of EU countries also ban transgenic cultivation.
Europe’s single market means this patchwork could be challenged in the WTO, so Brussels is trying to find a way to keep both sides happy.
EU health commissioner John Dalli’s solution is to remove the scope for “challengeable” scientific or environmental grounds to be used as reasons for applying national bans – falling back instead on defenses based on religion or tradition and, as a last resort, referendum results.
As long as the circulation of authorized GM goods is unrestricted, Brussels reckons both camps can co-exist.
While the Dutch lead the pack eager to develop GM crops, against the likes of Luxembourg, the open-minded see Dalli’s plan as potentially “attractive … if this is a way of unblocking the jam,” as one said.
A decision is due to be taken by environment ministers next month.
But Dalli’s spokesman Frederic Vincent illustrated the difficulty in voting after a decision by the European Commission to reject a GM cotton application on Friday.
“There were 13 in favor, nine against, four abstained and one was absent,” he said. “It’s almost always like that.”
With a decision on renewing Monsanto’s MON 810 maize licence for the next 10 years due “in the coming months”, lawyers are edgy.
“To put it bluntly, no member state has yet come up with a convincing reason based on science for blocking GM cultivation on its territory,” Vincent insists.
“(But) it’s important to stress that the scientific background to the authorization system will stay,” he underlined.
Dalli’s office will release a report on Monday claiming that current safety guidelines on distance between GM and organic crops, sometimes as little as five meters, “is working”.
But another report by the European Food Safety Authority on the dangers of contamination said there were too many “limitations when assessing data with surrogate species” to render results conclusive.
In the United States, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty argues that its fish, injected with a gene that helps it reach adult size twice as quickly as normal Atlantic salmon, is in all other respects “identical”.
Experts there are trying to decide whether, if the salmon is given the green light, it must carry a GM label, which the developers argue might lead consumers to shun the fish.