Brussels, 13 Apr 2006
The European Commission has announced that it is to propose steps to improve the scientific basis and transparency of decisions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The proposed measures have however satisfied neither the pro, nor anti-GM lobbyists.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which carries out its own scientific assessments, makes EU-wide decisions on the safety of GMOs. The new measures are intended to reassure Member States, stakeholders and the general public that Community decisions are based on high quality scientific assessments that protect both human health and the environment. The proposals have been criticised for both not going far enough, and for threatening the independent nature of EFSA.
At the scientific evaluation phase, the Commission proposes inviting the EFSA to liaise more fully with national scientific bodies, with a view to resolving possible diverging scientific opinions with Member States. A number of countries have rejected EU decisions on GMOs, with Slovakia and Austria becoming the latest to announce national bans on certain GMOs. Luxembourg, Germany, France, Greece, Poland and Hungary also have national bans on GMOs approved at EU level.
The Commission also wishes to invite the EFSA to provide more detailed justifications in its opinions on individual applications, when it does not accept scientific objections raised by national authorities.
In addition, the Commission pledges to 'fully exercise its regulatory competences foreseen in the basic legislation to specify the legal framework in which EFSA assessment is to be carried out'. The EFSA will also be asked to address potential long-term effects and biodiversity issues more explicitly in their risk assessments.
During the decision-making phase, the Commission will in future address specific issues identified in the risk assessment, or substantiated by Member States, by introducing proportionate risk management measures on a case-by-case basis in draft decisions. If, in the Commission's opinion, a Member State's observation raises important new scientific questions not properly addressed by EFSA, the Commission will also consider suspending the procedure and refer the question for further consideration.
According to EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, the Commission's proposed measures risk 'politicising' the established independent, science-based safety assessment process carried out by EFSA.
'Any political interference in what should be an independent scientific assessment can only harm public confidence in the EU's food safety system. Any move to undermine the EFSA's scientific independence will also damage consumer confidence in all aspects of food safety - exactly what EFSA was established to address in the first place,' said Simon Barber, Director of the plant biotechnology unit at EuropaBio.
Conversely, the international environmental organisation Greenpeace welcomes the Commission's commitment to addressing perceived policy failures, but claims that the proposed changes do not go far enough.
'The European Commission has taken a positive step by seeking to improve GMO risk assessment in the EU,' said Eric Gall, Greenpeace's EU GMO policy director. 'But it must make sure that the European Food Safety Authority is immediately subject to mandatory guidelines on how to evaluate the risks of GMOs.' Dr Gall also called for the GMO authorisation process to be suspended pending this change, and for previous EFSA opinions on GMOs to be re-assessed.
The Commission intends to discuss its proposals with the Member States and EFSA in the coming months.