London (07.02.17) – Towards the end of January, the EU Member States voted against the European Commission’s proposal to authorize the first new GM crops for cultivation since 1998. However there was no qualified majority vote so the ultimate decision rests with the Commission (1). In the light of many earlier situations like this, who knows how the Commission will respond? The rules say they should continue to allow the cultivation of MON810 in the EU but who can be sure what they will actually do?

The actual distribution of votes was as expected, with the usual pros voting pro, the antis voting against and with a few unable to make up their minds after nearly twenty years of cultivation experience: MON810 was first authorised in the EU in1998 (2):

For renewal of MON810:
Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom;

Those against: Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovenia;

Unable to decide:
Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia.

Voting on authorising strains Syngenta BT11 and Dow-Pioneer 1507 was almost identical with those for MON810 save for Sweden which seems to have bottled out while the Czech Republic found that decision altogether too difficult and so abstained.

A useful overview of the European scene is offered by the US Department of Agriculture’s GAIN report of June 2016 (3) which notes that "the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU (Brexit) is unlikely to affect EU biotech policies or trade in the short term". That seems reasonable in view of the reluctance of the EU to come to grips with the realities of agricultural biotechnology. But in their report specifically on the UK (4), USDA comments that "Brexit…will not change policy or trade in genetically plants or animals in the short to medium term. The UK represents 14% of EU imports of soy, maize-related and other animal feed products likely to be derived from generic engineering….. with such imports declining gradually" (4).

That conclusion is not entirely consonant with other reports. For instance. Farming UK noted that farming minister George Eustace said last year that future arrangements may be put in place for their regulation: "The Government's general view remains that policy and regulation in this area should be science-based and proportionate," he said (5). GM-wheat is to trialled at Rothamsted (6) to see if the spectacular gains in productivity of 20-40% in GM wheat grown in the greenhouse can be reproduced in the open air. And the sceptics may be becoming more realistic and less bothered. As The Times observed (7): "The GM crop being planted at Rothamsted Farm in the two-year trial will be protected only by a fence. The site’s last GM wheat trial had to be defended by police against protesters who claimed to be “decontaminating” the field".

And, as CropGen has commented on more than one occasion, there is no great anti-GM feeling currently being expressed in the UK, just occasional fading comments from the few remaining activists. Alan Winters of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at Sussex University thinks that British consumers could benefit if the home market were opened to cheap American food. Britain might allow in genetically modified crops, which are regulated more heavily in the EU, or buy from America’s highly competitive beef farmers (8). Would many people in Britain much object?

Sources:


1. Cultivation in groundbreaking votes. Sustainable Pulse (27.01.17) (http://sustainablepulse.com/2017/01/27/european-nations-reject-gm-crop-cultivation-in-groundbreaking-votes/#.WJirnhA-cks)

2. Inscription of MON 810 GM maize varieties in the Common EU Catalogue of Varieties. European Commission (08.09.94) (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-04-1083_en.htm)

3. EU-28 Agricultural Biotechnology Annual 2016. GAIN Report Number: FR1624. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (06.12.16) (https://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent%20GAIN%20Publications/Agricultural%20Biotechnology%20Annual_Paris_EU-28_12-6-2016.pdf).

4. United Kingdom. Agricultural Biotechnology Annual GE Plants and Animals Report. GAIN Report. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (27.10.16) (https://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent GAIN Publications/AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY ANNUAL_London_United Kingdom_10-27-2016.pdf)

5. UK votes in favour of GM crops, paving way for potential post-Brexit approval. Farming UK (31.01.17) (https://www.farminguk.com/news/UK-votes-in-favour-of-GM-crops-paving-way-for-potential-post-Brexit-approval_45484.html)

6. Matt McGrath (01.02.17). New 'super yield' GM wheat trial gets go-ahead. BBC News (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38814837)

7. Ben Webster (02.02.17). GM ‘superwheat’ trial will start in the spring. The Times (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/superwheat-trial-will-start-in-the-spring-mvpjbfzhf)

8. Britain shouldn’t get too excited by the prospect of a trade agreement with Donald Trump. Haggis aside, the benefits would be limited. The Economist (21.01.17) (http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21715025-haggis-aside-benefits-would-be-limited-britain-shouldnt-get-too-excited-prospect)

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