London (21.02.17) – As it has done for so long, the EU continues to get their collective knickers in a twist (1). According to the EU Observer (2), the European Commission wants to end the practice of national governments hiding behind the Commission when controversial decisions, like authorising genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are taken (2). It would wouldn’t it? Then the Commission would not have to take the uncomfortable decision of coming down on one side or the other in the endless GM-crop authorisation squabbles.

The rules are that if and when on safety grounds the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) approves an application to import a GM-product or cultivate a GM-crop, or a similar controversial matter like renewing permission to use glyphosate (3), the outcome goes to the Council of Minsters for a (political) decision based on the EU’s system of qualified majority voting. (In that arrangement, the single vote of the smallest Member State represents about 142,000 residents whereas the largest gets 29 votes, each on account of 2.78 million people. Still, that’s a federal structure for you.) If there is no clear-cut outcome pro or con according to the rules (the “qualified majority vote”) the Commission is supposed with 90 days to support or reject the proposal according to EFSA’s recommendations. The trouble is that sometimes they don’t, leaving a decision dangling for years.

“Dear me”, says Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “It is not right that when EU countries cannot decide among themselves whether or not to ban the use of glyphosate in herbicides, the Commission is forced by Parliament and Council to take a decision. So we will change those rules – because that is not democracy”. (Is a decision by the Commission to change the rules an expression of democracy?) The Commission has therefore proposed that abstentions are no longer counted towards calculating a qualified majority, which would reduce the number of no opinions. But so far bureaucracy is winning: the Commission’s proposal is stuck in the legislative pipeline in Council (3).

The Commission also suggested the way member states voted should be made public and that the commission should have the right to refer cases to the ministerial level so that national ministers will have to decide. The proposal needs to be approved by the EU parliament and national governments before it can become law so it may never happen.

Why does the EU have this attitude towards GM? Science thinks the reasons include trade policies; public trust in regulators, advocacy groups, and agribusiness; the tenor of media coverage; and levels of scientific literacy. But no single factor, they say, explains it all (4). That is one difference between the UK and most other EU countires: in about 2006, the British media changed from being about 2:1 against GM to 2:1 in favour. The whole tone of the discussion changed.

Yet more on the EU: there was an article in The Times (5) suggesting that after the UK leaves the EU, British plans to grow GM-crops in Britain could result in the EU blocking imports of the produce: British farmers seeking to sell produce to the remaining 27 member states could be hampered by multiple barriers on top of tariffs averaging 14%. Indeed they could – and, no doubt, vice versa: if the British want to sell into the EU market they will have to meet EU market rules just as EU suppliers will if they want to market their products in the UK. Fair’s fair.

But on this side of the Channel the mood is mostly rather different and up-beat. The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich plans a field trial of GM-potatoes which they believe could help defeat late blight, a major crop disease costing billions of pounds a year in losses plus the cost of the chemicals used for control with farmers spraying 10 to 15 times a year (or more) to control the pest. “Organic” potatoes said to be blight-resistant and so not requiring spraying all have other properties making them less desirable than Maris Piper (6).

There is also good news from Scotland: while the Scottish First Minister has reaffirmed her party’s intention of keeping Scotland well out of the forefront of modern agriculture (7), it seems she has “extolled the importance of scientific advice in policy-making”. Science (she thinks) is particularly important for a sector like farming. You might be forgiven, dear reader, for not having realised that. The First Minister leads the Scottish National Party with 63 members in the Scottish Parliament (just over 49% of the voting members). Next in line is the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party with about 24%, still a long way to go before they have a majority. But their leader signalled her strong support for GM-crops at NFU Scotland’s conference, saying her party would ‘absolutely support’ their use. (8). So there we have it: with Scottish independence you get no GM – but stay in the UK and you might well get GM as a bonus.

And, finally, apples. Metro, while noting that, as part of the EU, the UK has strict laws about what GM-foods can be sold, points out that after Brexit that could all be about to change, with a potential trade deal with the US likely to include relaxing regulations. In particular they point to the Arctic Apple, a green apple (like the Granny Smith) which, however, does not go brown when cut and has now hit supermarket shelves in America for the first time this month (9, 10). Moreover, not, perhaps, just ordinary apples: a pink pineapple has been developed by Del Monte Fresh Produce containing lower levels of the enzymes that convert the pink pigment lycopene to the yellow pigment beta-carotene. The new pineapple variety, which will be identified as "extra sweet pink flesh pineapple" to distinguish it from Del Monte's "golden extra sweet pineapple", has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as being as safe and nutritious as their conventional pineapple varieties (11).

Sources:

1. “get your knickers in a twist”. Cambridge Dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/get-your-knickers-in-a-twist)

2. Peter Teffer (14.02.17). Brussels wants EU states to share flak for GMO approvals. EU Observer (https://euobserver.com/institutional/136904)

3. Peter Teffer (20.01.17). GMO opt-out plan remains in waiting room. EU Observer (https://euobserver.com/environment/136616)

4. Ben Webster (17.02.17). Brussels ‘will block’ GM food from Britain. The Times (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/brussels-will-block-gm-food-from-britain-dphl7zc9n)

5. Genetic divide. Science, 355, 572 (10.02.17) (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6325/572.1)

6. Chris Hill (07.02.17). The Sainsbury Laboratory plans GM potato field trial in Norwich. Eastern Daily Press (http://www.edp24.co.uk/business/farming/the_sainsbury_laboratory_plans_gm_potato_field_trial_in_norwich_1_4881071)

7. Nancy Nicolson (09.02.17). Nicola Sturgeon confirms GM crops ban will remain in place. The Press and Journal (https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/business/farming/1164310/undefined-headline-2463/)

8. Scottish Conservatives ‘absolutely support’ GM crops. FG Insight (06.02.17) (https://www.fginsight.com/news/scottish-conservatives-absolutely-support-gm-crops-18647)

9. Jen Mills (06.02.17). Apple which never goes brown could hit British shelves after Brexit. Metro (http://metro.co.uk/2017/02/06/apple-which-never-goes-brown-could-hit-british-shelves-after-brexit-6431127/)

10. Dan Wheat (09.01.17). First GMO apple slices to go on sale in Midwest. Capital Press (http://www.capitalpress.com/Orchards/20170109/first-gmo-apple-slices-to-go-on-sale-in-midwest)

11. Maggie Fox (14.12.16). Genetically engineered pink pineapple is safe to sell, FDA says. NBC News (http://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/genetically-engineered-pink-pineapple-safe-sell-fda-says-n696176)

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