By: Auther Nelsen

Seventeen new genetically modified food products will be authorised for import to Europe before the end of May in a significant acceleration of biotech trade, the Guardian has learned.

An announcement could be made as early as next week, sources said, when a meeting of EU commissioners has been pencilled in to review adoption of new rules for approving GM imports.

Europe currently imports around 58 GM products from abroad, mostly US maize, cotton, soy bean and sugar beet.

But Greenpeace said that the US has raised the issue of a large logjam in biotech authorisations in talks over a free trade deal known as TTIP.


“With transatlantic trade talks ongoing, pressure has been mounting from the biotech industry and the US government to break open the EU market to GM imports and to speed up authorisation procedures,” Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU’s agriculture director, told the Guardian. “The possible authorisation of 17 GM crops by the commission in the next few days is a likely result of this pressure.”

“The timing is still being discussed but it is just a question of internal procedure now,” a source familiar with the discussions told the Guardian. “It is clear that the 17 strains will be authorised at the same time as the review meeting or just after. I would say it will happen before the end of May for sure.”

Under proposed new GM import rules seen by the Guardian, future authorisations would automatically follow approval of new strains by the European Food and Safety Agency (Efsa). Individual countries would be given a similar opt-out to the one agreed for GM cultivation in a law passed earlier this year.

“It will be up to each member state wanting to make use of this ‘opt-out’ to develop this justification on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the GMO [genetically-modified organism] in question, the type of measure envisaged and the specific circumstances at national or regional level that can justify such an opt-out,” the draft said.

Opposition from some EU states to draft GM authorisations is “usually not based on science but on other considerations reflecting the societal debate existing in the country,” the commission argues. So opt-outs will not be granted to EU states who seek it on health or environmental grounds, after Efsa has deemed a product safe.

“The scope for the exceptions [opt-outs] will probably be less than in the cultivation proposal because we are talking about the internal market here,” an informed source said. “You will have to have a really solid reason. Otherwise it would be attacked as a disruption to the market.”

But biotech industry groups are opposed to the measure, fearing that it would prevent the free movement of GM imports in practice, as countries found ways to opt-out on technicalities, such as claiming trace residues of unauthorised strains in shipment containers. The 17 products include animal feeds as well as food for human consumption.

“This would be another licence to ban safe products,” Beat Späth, the director for agricultural biotechnology at the EuropaBio trade association told the Guardian. “We import to the EU over 33m tonnes of GM commodities per year, mainly to feed our farm animals. If countries impose unjustified bans on products that have been used by farmers for 15 years, where are our farmers supposed to get their feed from?”

Gloria Gabellini, deputy secretary general of the Coceral grain importers federation added: “We fear that this approach would reverse the achievements of European customs union and the single market. We have a single market so if you import a product, it must be entitled to free circulation.”

Greenpeace also opposes the review proposal, arguing that this constitutes an assault on the ability of democratically-elected governments to protect their environments and peoples from potential risks, where the science is contested. Efsa has never refused a GM authorisation.

The campaign group also said that the proposal breaks a promise by the EU president Jean-Claude Juncker last year that the review would focus on “laws that oblige the commission to authorise genetically modified organisms, even when a majority of national governments is against this.”

The trigger for this was a vote in February on the GM maize strain known as 1507, opposed by 19 countries and supported by five. France and other countries were angry that the commission could have given 1507 a green light for cultivation regardless, under existing qualified majority voting rules.

“The proposal undermines Juncker’s plan to bring the EU closer to its citizens,” Contiero said. “It fails to address major opposition to GM crops among public opinion and ignores concerns raised by national scientific bodies on the safety of GM crops.”

Originally Published: The Guardian