WASHINGTON DC – The European Commission is embroiled in an internal fight over two pending applications for the cultivation of two genetically modified (GM) corn varieties that both received safety clearance from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in 2005.
The fight is triggered by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, who has been working against the approval of these two applications for pest-resistant GM corns for fear they could have unintended long-term consequences on fauna such as birds, bees and butterflies.
To block the approval, Dimas is seeking to invoke the precautionary principle, which is set out in EU genetically modified organism (GMO) legislation to take into account factors other than the official scientific opinion of the relevant EU body. If successful, it would be the first invocation of the precautionary principle.
The directorate generals (DGs) for trade, agriculture, industry and research have opposed Dimas’ proposal informally, according to an informed source. At this point, Dimas is reviewing feedback garnered from all EU DGs, an EU source said.
If the feedback is mixed, as seems likely, the proposal would have to come before the European Commission as a group for discussion and a possible vote. The vote would occur if the Commission is not clearly coming out in favor or against the proposal. A simple majority of commissioners would be sufficient to approve the Dimas proposal.
Dimas’ term as commissioner will end in 2009, and biotechnology industry sources speculated that Dimas may want to avoid playing a role in the approval of the two GMO corn for reasons possibly related to his political plans once he leaves the Commission.
Dimas’ move is the latest sign of his reluctance to approve the cultivation of Bt11 from Sygenta and 1507 from Pioneer and Dow. He failed to act on the applications when they were approved as safe by EFSA in 2005, when he was supposed send the applications to the Regulatory Standing Committee within 120 days of the decision.
Instead, Dimas in April 2006 urged EFSA to more explicitly address the potential long-term effects of GMOs and also called for EFSA to review its decision on the two GMOs (Inside U.S. Trade, April 21, 2006).
An EU source said that Dimas questioned the approval of these GMOs in light of studies since EFSA’s 2005 approval that show that the toxins released by GMO corn could have adverse affects on ‘secondary’ animals, and not just the agricultural pests they are meant to keep at bay.
The source said that Dimas does not question EFSA’s science, but instead believes that there is simply not enough knowledge of the long-term environmental effects of such GMOs, and these effects cannot be modeled or predicted by EFSA or other bodies.
Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, both of which are opposed to GMO use, hailed Dimas’ decision. “The two GM maize varieties are engineered to produce a toxin (commonly called Bt) that is poisonous to certain insect pests,” they said. “However, scientific studies show that these GM maize are toxic to certain butterfly species and may also affect other beneficial insects and have long term negative effects on soil health.”
Referral to the standing committee is generally the first step in member state approval of a GMO. If it is deadlocked without a clear position on either side of the issue, the GMO applications would proceed to the Council of Ministers. If the Council remains deadlocked, the process returns to the Commission. It can then choose to use its power to over-ride member states and approve the product.
Sources said that Dimas has been under intense pressure from other parts of the Commission to move the applications forward. The corn applications for cultivation, along with a GMO potato application for cultivation, are the only remaining cultivation applications under the authority of the Environment DG, as under their applications were made under older EU rules of 2001/18.
All new GMO applications, both for food and feed use and cultivation, are now under health and consumer protection DG (Sanko) under 2003 legislation, 18/29/2003.
By Erica Lee Nelson
Published in Inside US Trade, November 16, 2007