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GMO agreement should be fine-tuned - Minister

June 25, 2014

Tonio BorgMalta is calling for the "fine tuning" of the text of an agreement regulating the marketing of genetically modified crops spearheaded by Health Commissioner Tonio Borg and the Greek EU Presidency.

The agreement facilitates the approval of genetically modified crops in Europe while setting a legal basis for countries that want to ban GMOs in their own territory.

While the agreement was welcomed by both member states who want to ban GM crops and others who favour their authorisation, environmentalists have expressed concern on the approved text, fearing that this will make the authorisation of GMOs in the European Market easier and could expose countries who ban GMOs in their territories to legal challenges from companies like US biotech giant Monsanto.

During last week's environment ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, Minister Leo Brincat supported the political compromise agreement reached between practically all EU states.

But the Maltese government is looking forward to further developments on the issue when the new directive is discussed in the European Parliament, hoping that this will also result in more fine tuning of the legal text agreed upon.

Greens shoot down agreement

The European Greens's food safety spokesperson, Bart Staes, said the agreement would enable the Commission to force through swifter and easier EU-level GMO authorisations by allowing member states or regions to opt out.

"However, there are major legal uncertainties. There are clear concerns that the opt-outs would not be legally sound and would be subject to legal challenges, leaving member states or regions isolated to defend their stance."

The Greens also referred to the danger of cross-contamination of crops and the risks of these crops spreading across borders, thus making national bans ineffective.

Friends of the Earth Europe criticised the agreement as "a poisoned chalice, which could open Europe's fields to more biotech crop."

Of particular concern is a clause, which obliges countries that ban GMO crops in their territories to justify the ban to the company involved.

Subsequently countries may still overrule a company's objections according to a set of wide ranging criteria, which include socioeconomic concerns, land use and town planning, agricultural policy objectives and public policy issues.

EU commissioner Tonio Borg insists, "the final say on whether to cultivate a GMO still stays with the member state, who retain the right to opt out regardless of the applicants' views."

Borg expressed satisfaction that the Council has ended the deadlock on GMO cultivation with a political agreement.

"It offers a new judicial basis allowing member states to restrict or ban GMOs within their borders. Today's political agreement answers member states' demands since 2009 for greater flexibility and more judicial security for their decisions," he claimed.

The agreement was also shot down by multinational giant Monsanto, which accused Europe of succumbing to "populist" concerns and ignoring science.

Malta defends "balanced" agreement

Malta has to date always adopted a cautionary approach on GMOs, which reflects the strong public concern about the potential risks of the introduction of GMOs on human health and the environment.

However, the government considers the current compromise text as "a well balanced text that moves in the right direction."

This is because Malta considers the process for GMO authorisation as "a robust and rigid process".

The agreement is also deemed to bring about real benefits both for those who want to cultivate and for those who do not want to cultivate GMOs within their territory.

Malta fully agrees with the principle of having the possibility of a new approach to achieve the right balance between maintaining the EU system of authorisations and the need to grant flexibility to member states to address specific national, regional or local issues instigated by the cultivation of GMOs.

Minister Brincat noted that this text constitutes the finalisation of the first reading of this file by Council following which the incoming Presidency would be able to engage in the second reading agreement procedure on this file with the newly elected European parliament.

According to Brincat the current text sets out the right balance by safeguarding the European food safety authority (EFSA)'s assessment for cultivation authorisations while giving the right to member states that wish to do so to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs in all or part of their territory "on the basis of specific circumstances" which are not accounted for by the EU level EFSA assessments.

Brincat expressed satisfaction that member states have broken the deadlock on the GMO cultivation proposal and reached a political agreement that moves towards a new legal basis giving member states the choice to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs on their territory or part of it.

"Nevertheless what we agreed upon was a political agreement on a new draft GMO cultivation legislation directive that will still need to be followed by the formal adoption by Council of its first reading".

In view of this Malta is calling for text fine-tuning in the hope that when the Italian Presidency starts its negotiations in the second reading with the newly elected European Parliament in autumn, 2014 "the outcome will provide the soundest legal basis possible".

"Our intention always was that a solution would not and should not compromise our concerns on the issue now or in future," Brincat told MaltaToday.

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ... More from James DebonoJames on Twitter James on Facebook

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Source: MaltaToday

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