Half of the European Union’s 28 countries and three of its regions have opted out of a new GM crop scheme, in a blow to biotech industry hopes.
Under new EU rules agreed in March, 15 countries have now told Brussels they will send territorial exclusion requests to the big agricultural multinationals including Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and Pioneer.
Applications from Latvia and Greece have already been accepted by the firms and if that pattern is extended, around two-thirds of of the EU’s population – and of its arable land – will be GM-free.
Industry sources warned that Europe could soon become a “graveyard” for biotech products but environmentalists hailed the news.
“A growing number of governments are rejecting the commission’s drive for GM crop approvals,” said Greenpeace’s EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg. “They don’t trust EU safety assessments and are rightly taking action to protect their agriculture and food. The only way to restore trust in the EU system now is for the commission to hit the pause button on GM crop approvals and to urgently reform safety testing and the approval system.”
On Wednesday, Germany became the largest EU country to snub GM crops, when the agricultural minister, Christian Schmidt , told Brussels that his country had no appetite for the biotech produce.
Other countries that have exercised an opt out or said they plan to include Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Italy, Hungary, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia.
Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wallonia will also be opting out on a regional basis. Wales has more recently opted out, making England the only country in the British Isles to allow GM crop cultivation. The final deadline for withdrawals is 3 October, and at least two more EU countries are expected to join the list by then.
EU sources say that agribusiness companies are most likely to object to opt-outs from big nations such as Germany. But these countries could then exercise the option of a national ban on public interest grounds, not related to environmental assessments by the EU’s regulator, the European Food Safety Authority.
The news was greeted with weary resignation by the biotech industry which complains that only 140,000 hectares of Europe’s land are being cultivated with GM products – compared to 181m hectares in the rest of the world.
“We deeply regret that some EU countries have decided to make use of the new licensed ban on the cultivation of safe and approved GM crops on their territory,” said Beat Spath, the director of the industry group Europabio. “The new EU legislation allowing these bans is a ‘stop’ sign for agricultural cultivation that sends a negative signal for all innovative industries considering investing in Europe.”
Commission proposals to extend the rules to imported biotech grains would set a disturbing precedent likely to “further extend the graveyard for this technology,” he added.