BRUSSELS, Belgium - The current debate in Europe over biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are having an impact on the installation of a new European Commission.
In the run-up to the crucial mid-September vote in the European Parliament on whether to endorse the commission-designate, the proposed commission team has been answering a series of written questions from the Parliament on key policy issues.
Biotechnology-related subjects feature prominently in the long list of questions the European Parliament has put to the 20 candidates. The Parliament also will hold individual oral hearings of each candidate in the coming days, prior to its vote, which is scheduled for Sept. 15.
Margot Wallstrom, the former Swedish minister who has been designated as commissioner responsible for the environment, has been bold in her written answers. She rejected the widely backed idea of a moratorium on all new biotechnology food products. She replied vigorously to Parliament's queries over her views on a moratorium for releasing genetically modified organisms, opposing any arbitrary cessation of registration for biotechnology products, and stating the commission should not back any moratorium as long as current European Union laws are still in place.
"The commission must continue to apply the existing provisions," she said, "and process pending notifications." If any member state breaches current EU rules and decides to hold up such applications without good reason, the commission must take legal action, she insisted.
But she made clear that she sympathized with concerns over biotechnology, and wanted to take them seriously. She spoke of "the need for effective control of GMOs," and "the need for an effective and transparent, as well as efficient, regulatory framework. The debate on biotechnology has been ongoing for almost a decade, and has become more volatile than ever," Wallstrom said.
And she promised to launch a new initiative to further the debate, "with focus on specific issues, in particular the use of the precautionary principle, the evaluation of the potential long-term effects on the environment and human health, and the strengthening of scientific evaluation."
Franz Fischler, the former Austrian minister who has been nominated to return to his post as commissioner responsible for agriculture, also faced numerous questions on biotechnology. Genetic modification of crops is not only a new tool of plant breeding, but "in principle a positive development," he said in his written answer to the Parliament. But he did acknowledge that "potential risks to human health and the environment must be properly assessed, and genetic modifications presenting such risks must be banned, as must their products."
He admitted that EU rules were still incomplete in this area. While the procedures for plant registration, for authorizing the release of genetically modified organisms, and for marketing novel foods are no longer separate under EU law, the detailed procedures "are still to be fixed." The concept is now that a genetically modified plant variety can officially be accepted "only after completion of the required risk assessment with a 'no risk' conclusion," but "the preparation of the terms and conditions for risk assessment is still under way."
Fischler said he was in favor of rapid EU progress toward a clearer policy on GMOs - particularly in light of the impending World Trade Organization round of talks on liberalizing international trade, due to start in Seattle in December, and where EU-U.S. trade disputes are sure to be high on the agenda.
"It is very important that we have a well-accepted and operational certification procedure in place to strengthen our position in the WTO," Fischler urged. But at the same time, he recognized some of the difficulties in reaching agreement: "The estimation of risk potential differs between cultures when it comes to biotechnology and genetically modified organisms. We need rigorous testing and strong regulations to exclude any harm to human health and to nature. European citizens want to understand and acknowledge all the specific ecological, ethical and safety implications of biotechnology before they are prepared to believe in the huge potential of this new technology."
David Byrne, an Irish lawyer who has been nominated to take on responsibility for consumer protection, health and food safety in the new commission, tried to downplay the EU-U.S. conflict in his written answers. "There are important differences between the U.S. and the EU on a number of important issues related to food safety," with "especially divergent views" on genetically modified organisms, he said. The differences, he said, were due to "the more prudent and cautious approach of European consumers to new food products and new food technologies" and to "the greater suspicion in the EU of the reliability of scientific evidence on the safety of foodstuffs."
But, Byrne said, "these differences should not be exaggerated." He spoke of common objectives, of the way the two sides collaborate actively in promoting food safety, and of the important bilateral initiatives on consumer protection. "This collaboration must be intensified," he said. "I would also like to see greater efforts toward promoting improved dialogue and cooperation between our respective regulatory and scientific authorities."
Byrne said he supported "a science-based and prudent approach" to GMOs. "It is of paramount importance that food from GMOs has been assessed scientifically and concluded to be safe for human consumption as well as for the environment before it is placed on the EU market," he said.
He also championed the idea of better labeling. "Consumers all over Europe have stressed the need for adequate product information in order to be able to choose freely what to buy," Byrne said. "I fully support this demand. A GMO-free line of food production, which would enable the consumer to have a clear choice, would improve the situation. Stronger labeling provisions may be necessary in this respect."