Vote could take place before Christmas

The EU Commission and a few pro-GMO member states are trying to sneak through approvals for new GM crops to be grown in Europe's fields – and they seem to be hoping that the public, press, concerned NGOs, and even MEPs won’t notice. 

The Commission is putting forward two new GM insecticidal maize varieties for cultivation in the European Union – Pioneer’s 1507 and Syngenta’s Bt11 – as well as the reauthorization request for MON810. If passed, these would be the first new GM crops legally authorized for cultivation in the EU in 18 years.

A vote was expected to take place at the Standing Committee on 16 November but it has now been postponed. Commission official Maria Mirazchiyska told the EFSA GMO Panel meeting last week that “discussions are still ongoing” on the cultivation proposals.[1]

News of the impending vote comes at a time when many NGOs and politically active people are distracted by the controversial CETA trade deal between the EU and Canada. And the committee’s next meeting is on 9 December, in the busy run-up to Christmas. 

There is broad suspicion that the Commission is failing to communicate in a transparent way about its plans for the vote. Reports have reached GMWatch that NGOs, journalists and even MEPs did not receive responses to their questions about when the vote would take place. Meanwhile the public could only access outdated schedules for meetings and agendas.

The Commission and a few pro-GMO governments appear to hope that the 19 member states that have opted out of growing GMOs will vote in favour of the cultivation approvals, given that these will not apply to their territories. 

One government that is certain to vote in favour will be the Westminster government in the UK, though GM crops would only be grown in England initially as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have chosen to opt out.

GMO Panel member slams EFSA for failing to investigate GMO risks

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), responsible for assessing the health and environmental impacts of new GM crops, has given the green light to the two new GM maize varieties despite significant gaps in data, substantial research challenging its thinking, and irrespective of recognized risks.[2]

The concerns over the new GM maize approvals come at a time when EFSA is being subjected to heavy criticism by a member of its own GMO Panel for failing to properly assess the risks of other GM crops. 

Jean-Michel Wal is a French allergy specialist who works for the research body INRA. In August this year EFSA issued a minority opinion[3] from Wal questioning the safety of a Syngenta “stacked trait” GM maize, Bt11 x 59122 x MIR604 x 1507 x GA21, which is being proposed for import for food and feed. The maize contains two of the traits that are now being proposed for cultivation, Bt11 and 1507. Wal called for actual data to be submitted on all the combinations of the five GMO traits in the stacked crop and warned EFSA not to base its risk assessment on “assumptions”. 

Recently Wal made further criticisms of EFSA, according to a report in EU Food Policy.[4] During a discussion of a stacked trait GM cotton, Wal told the open GMO plenary in Brussels that EFSA shows a "reluctance" to look at new information and that the panel rather "sticks to what we have done". He argued that the GMO Panel must be more explicit about the risks of allergies arising from GM proteins in food and feed.

According to EU Food Policy, Wal said the GMO Panel just did not know what the effects could be: “He argued that coeliac disease as well as digestive problems should be investigated and that it was important to know if a GMO variety could be more allergenic to someone suffering, for example, an allergy to soy.”

Equally, he said a GMO plant could be less allergenic than a non-GMO plant, but this must be investigated and not disregarded.

EU Food Policy continued, “Dr Wal said that new studies showed consumers could suffer allergies to certain proteins in GM plants, referring to studies done on rodents. EFSA should look at the effects on the immune system and on the gut, he argued.”

In the view of scientists advising GMWatch, GM Bt crops pose a particular risk of causing immune system problems and allergies, as animal feeding trials have shown that Bt toxins can produce immune responses.

EFSA fails to take on board new evidence

Wal’s concerns are backed up by instances in which EFSA has failed to adequately respond to new scientific evidence pointing to biosafety risks posed by GM Bt maize.

For example, in 2010 the then EFSA GMO Panel developed a model to assess the impacts of Bt maize pollen on non-target relatives to the corn borer pest. In response to several new scientific publications, EFSA has updated its scientific opinions five times. But it has continually failed to accept evidence that conflicts with its original model, despite research that clearly shows the impacts on non-target insects to be much higher.[6] 

In 2014 a group of researchers published empirical data about pollen dispersal over 10 years on 215 sites. This research was by far the most extensive ever carried out in the world. They concluded that in reality pollen flies long distances – in the order of kilometres[7] – thus radically challenging the EFSA model, which assumes a maximum of 30 metres. In a lengthy statistical explanation, EFSA dismissed this highly relevant evidence.

Friends of the Earth Europe reported[8] that the EFSA experts applied an “elicitation process” based on judgments, discussions and estimates to lower the pollen flow impact measurements by 97%, thus defending their earlier theoretical model and conclusion that it would be safe to cultivate the GM maize.[9] In interesting wording, EFSA called the reduction by 97% an “uncertainty analysis”.

Thus EFSA has played down evidence-based findings that challenge its previous assessments and has failed to improve its theoretical model.

EU Commission bins safety measures

EFSA’s recommendation of a maximum 30-metre buffer zone is extremely weak and contradicts strong scientific evidence. Yet the Commission has abandoned even this weak safety measure. In its draft decision to authorize the three GM maize crops, the Commission does not require any buffer zone for fields cultivated with GM maize. It only requires a several-metres buffer zone for nature-protected areas. And the policing of the buffer zones is up the biotech companies, not government authorities.

Political opposition to GM crops

The two new GM maize types, 1507 and Bt11, have caused controversy amongst national governments since the applications for cultivation were first lodged in 2006. In 2009 the EU Commissioner in charge proposed to withdraw these maize types but did not get the backing of all his fellow commissioners.

In a reaction to an EU court ruling, the Commission attempted to authorize 1507 maize again in February 2014. Nineteen governments opposed it, only five supported the decision, whilst the others abstained. In addition, the European Parliament demanded its rejection.[10]

Since then, the EU has agreed on the opt-out proposal that gives governments new tools to ban the cultivation of GM crops on their territories. In a clear political signal, 17 countries, and four regions in two other countries, banned the cultivation of various GM maize types in autumn 2015.[11]

No market for GM maize

Most biotech companies withdrew their applications for planting GM crops in the EU some years ago. In 2015, the area planted in Bt corn in the EU was expected to decrease by 10 percent to 128,103 hectares, according to the USDA.[12] More and more European farmers are losing interest in cultivating GM maize. And GM maize can only be used as animal feed, as food companies have phased out the use of raw GM materials in their products.

All things considered, there is no demand or need for these GM crops in Europe. If they are grown, the consequences could be serious, especially given the apparent reluctance of the Commission and EFSA to engage responsibly with scientific evidence.

Please share this article widely on your social networks to help raise awareness of the impending vote on cultivation of the new GM maize varieties in Europe. Most people are still unaware – let's alert them!

Originally Posted:


1. EU Food Policy (2016). No votes on GMOs next month. 28 October. Subscription only; no direct link.
2. Friends of the Earth Europe (2016). Upcoming GM maize authorisations: Toxic and inadequately tested by EU officials. Sept.
3. EFSA (2016). Scientific Opinion on an application by Syngenta (EFSA-GMO-DE-2011-99) for the placing on the market of maize Bt11 × 59122 × MIR604 × 1507 × GA21 and twenty subcombinations, which have not been authorised previously independently of their origin, for food and feed uses, import and processing under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003.
4. EU Food Policy (2016). GMO panel member says EFSA needs to look more deeply at potential issues. October. Subscription only; no direct link.
5. Perry JN et al (2010). A mathematical model of exposure of non-target Lepidoptera to Bt-maize pollen expressing Cry1Ab within Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Society, series B, Biological Sciences, published online before print January 6, 2010, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2091.
6. Holst N et al (2010). A mathematical model of exposure of non-target Lepidoptera to Bt-maize pollen expressing Cry1Ab within Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Society, series B, Biological Sciences, published online before print January 6, 2010, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2091. al (2013). Increased mortality is predicted of Inachis io larvae caused by Bt-maize pollen in European farmland. Ecological Modelling 250(2013): 126–133.
7. Hofmann F et al (2014). Maize pollen deposition in relation to the distance from the nearest pollen source under common cultivation – Results of 10 years of monitoring (2001–2010). Environmental Sciences Europe, 2014,  26:24. doi:10.1186/s12302-014-0024-3,
8. Friends of the Earth Europe (2016). Upcoming GM maize authorisations: Toxic and inadequately tested by EU officials. Sept.
9. EFSA (2015). Updating risk management recommendations to limit exposure of non-target Lepidoptera of conservation concern in protected habitats to Bt-maize pollen. EFSA Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). 1 July.
10. Friends of the Earth Europe (2016). The risk to nature of GM maize. Sept.
11. EU Commission (2016). Restrictions of geographical scope of GMO applications/authorisations: Member States demands and outcomes. 
12. USDA (2015). Agricultural Biotechnology Annual EU-28. 23 July.