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Europe's GM quandary

A political impasse over transgenic crops has left the European Commission with no good options.

It seems like a lose–lose situation for Europe's environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, whose thankless task it is to enforce the legislation that governs genetically modified (GM) crops.

Next week, the council of environment ministers from the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) will vote on whether the insect-resistant maize MON801, the only GM crop approved for cultivation in Europe, should still be allowed. But a firm decision in favour or against will require what is known as a qualified majority, representing at least 62% of the EU population, and this degree of consensus seems unlikely given Europe's deep divisions over GM crops (see Nature 457, 946; 2009). So the decision is likely to get bumped up to the European Commission itself — which will be bound by its own rules to decide in favour, thereby unleashing political fireworks.

That the council should be involved at all in such a technical matter speaks volumes for how contentious this issue is. In 2004, after six years of squabbling, the EU member states formally implemented a directive that allows the cultivation of GM crops — albeit with the toughest environmental and health safeguards in the world. The directive, in turn, is implemented through the European Food Safety Authority, which relies on scientific experts to assess whether a crop should be approved for cultivation.

In most other scientific or technical matters — approving a new medical device, say, or authorizing a new toxicity test — the experts' assessment is rubber-stamped by the appropriate regulatory committee. In effect, science has the final say. But that is not the case for GM crops. Four EU member states, Austria, Hungary, Greece and France, have now compiled new scientific evidence showing — or so they claim — that MON801 can endanger the environment. The European Food Safety Authority disagrees. And the EU regulatory committee is deadlocked on what to do about it.

Thus the involvement of the environment ministers. However, insiders are anticipating that they, too, will be politically deadlocked — even though, according to the directive, the scientific advice should determine the outcome. The decision will therefore have to be made by the commission, which is obliged to follow the scientists' advice and vote in favour of continued cultivation. But, being composed of unelected officials, it will undoubtedly be accused of anti-democratic action if it does.

The whole problem might be solved if countries opposed to GM crops could simply opt out of the legislation. But that would violate a core philosophy of the EU, which is the free movement of goods and people between all countries. Tinkering with the existing law is no solution, either: GM crops currently have too little support in Europe for any form of legislation to be robust.

So the only other option is to wait: let the current stalemate continue until the public opposition to GM crops begins to fade. In some European countries, GM crops have brought agricultural benefits and public opposition is relatively light. And surveys suggest that the European public is slowly starting to accept the idea. GM crops, as far as science can tell, are not harmful, and if, as is to be expected, Europe's consumers can benefit from cheaper, better food, or can be convinced of broader benefits amid a global food crisis, then opposition will decline. Ultimately, the onus is on manufacturers to deliver the products that will help to shift that political deadlock.

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Europe's GM quandary. Nature 457, 1057–1058 (2009).

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