Has the European Commission found a way out of the GMC impasse? The biotech-wary Old Continent only grows 100,000 hectares of genetically modified crops, as against 134 million in the rest of the world. And Commission president José Manuel Barroso has never made any bones about his hankering to put an end to this exception.

An opt-out clause

Brussels is mulling ways to give member states more leeway to ban the cultivation of GM strains within their borders – even those that have been green-lighted at EU level. In exchange, biotech-averse nations would stop blocking approval of new transgenic varieties. Health commissioner John Dalli is to table a more concrete proposal in July, which will then be put to the European Council and Parliament for approval. But France wants the issue to be addressed as early as Friday, 11 June, at the Environment Council meeting in Luxembourg.

So what exactly is the envisaged arrangement? Mr Dalli intends to amend the existing legislation to enable member states to ban GMOs without having to put a safety clause in place. An opt-out clause would be inserted instead, which governments could invoke to prohibit one crop or another, without having to give reasons for their objections. The point is plain: to preserve the current European GMO authorisation system whilst giving member states more – particularly political – autonomy. As matters stand, environmental or health-related reasons have to be given to invoke the safety clauses. If they are not, complaints can be filed with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) against the EU.

Commission will not reform Food Safety Authority

In March, the College of European Commissioners put an end to the long-standing impasse by approving the cultivation of Amflora potatoes, the second such authorisation in Europe after that of Monsanto’s MON 810 maize. That green light was roundly condemned by environmentalists. At the time, health commissioner Dalli pledged to flesh out his views on the European system by the summer. Eurocrats hasten to point out that the current framework has not prevented eight countries, including France, Austria, Germany and Hungary, from opposing the production of one GMC or another on their soil by means of a safety clause. In four cases the Commission tried to lift those bans, whose scientific validity is contested by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but the states rejected those proposals.

The new approach is aimed at combining changes in the existing legal framework with a new scheme for the coexistence of GMCs, on the one hand, and organic and conventional crops, on the other. Moreover, the Commission is seeking to minimise the impact of this reform on the single market, but the sale and trade in GMC produce cannot be restricted, since the opt-out only applies to cultivation as such. “Free trade in authorised lines of GMCs must remain unrestricted within the framework of the single market,” according to Commission documents, and the Commission has no intention of reforming the EFSA, which has been the object of hefty criticism. Paris, for example, insists that the new proposals should not block the road map that member states unanimously adopted under the French EU presidency in late 2008 in order to thoroughly overhaul the authorisation process and the workings of the EFSA.

Cross-contamination of crops a risk

France’s agriculture ministry is opposed to applying the subsidiarity principle to GMC farming, which, it argues, could distort competition. And its ministry of ecology upholds the whole point of the safety clause in the first place: to ward off any risk of cross-contamination of crops. Arnaud Apoteker at Greenpeace France believes that behind their “seductive” appearance, the new proposals are a trap: "The wording makes no bones about it: the idea is to step up the pace of approvals. But the way GMO assessment is currently carried out is not satisfactory.”

For James Borel, executive vice-president of the US agro-chemical group DuPont, the Brussels scheme represents "a big step forwards”, even if it isn’t "ideal”. Three authorisation requests for genetically modified lines of maize are already on commissioner Dalli’s desk: Swiss group Syngenta’s BT 11, BT 1507 engineered by the US group Pioneer (a DuPont subsidiary), and US biotech giant Monsanto’s MON 810 (for authorisation renewal).