European Union regulators have proposed giving individual EU countries the authority to ban imports of genetically modified food and animal feed, risking a renewed trans-Atlantic trade dispute.
The European Commission proposed that EU governments gain a right to opt out of rules making the 28-nation bloc a single market for gene-altered food and feed. With Europe split over the safety of gene-modified organisms, the commission wants to give opponents of GMOs fewer grounds to hold up EU approvals urged by supporters of the technology.
The initiative is modeled on recent European legislation that lets national governments go their own way on the cultivation of gene-modified crops. That law was a triumph for proponents of a better-safe-than-sorry European policy on GMOs and dented a free-trade tenet of the EU.
“The new approach aims to achieve the right balance between maintaining an EU authorization system and the freedom for member states to decide on the use of GMOs on their territory,” the commission, the bloc’s regulatory arm in Brussels, said in an emailed statement.
The proposal is intended to speed up endorsements at EU level of requests to sell food and feed made by biotech companies such as Monsanto and declared safe by European scientists, with the price of accelerated approvals being a potentially smaller European market. The political division in Europe over the risks posed by GMOs has delayed EU authorization to import or grow them, slowing expansion of a global biotech-seed market valued at almost $16 billion in 2014.
Biotech foods are crops in which genetic material has been altered to add traits such as resistance to weed-killing chemicals.
EU governments and the European Parliament, which deliberated for more than four years over the recently approved law allowing a national opt-out on GMO cultivation, must also endorse any changes to the rules on importing gene-altered food and feed. Those talks promise to revive questions about whether Europe gives sufficient weight to science in GMO policy.
The U.S. government expressed concerns about the latest proposal, saying it would enable EU nations to ignore “science-based safety and environmental determinations,” would fragment the European market and is inconsistent with trans-Atlantic talks on a free-trade agreement.
“Proposing this kind of trade-restrictive action is not constructive,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said in an e-mailed statement.
The commission proposal foresees that after a GMO is authorized by the EU for use as food or feed, member governments will have the option to prohibit that biotech product from entering their food chain. Such national restrictions would have to respect a number of existing EU standards and be driven by “overriding reasons of public interest,” the commission said.
National authorities throughout the EU have a say over European-level approvals because the bloc’s common-market rules require that a GMO sold in one member state be permitted for sale in the others. That gives GMO opponents the opportunity to obstruct the European approval process.
The EU ended a six-year ban on new gene-altered products in 2004 after tightening labeling rules and creating a food agency to screen applications.