Juncker’s 'Union of democratic change' undermined by corporate pressure on GM crops

Publication - April 20, 2015
MEDIA BRIEFING - The Commission is about to announce a revision of the way EU decisions are made on imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The plan is likely to fall short of a promise by Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to make the EU system more democratic.

Genetically modified soy bean plantation in Brazil.

Instead, it is expected to pave the way for further approvals of GM crops, even if a majority of national governments, the European Parliament and public opinion are opposed. Based on earlier information, both environmentalists and industry groups have criticised the Commission’s plan, which is expected to be released on 22 April.

Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “Juncker has repeatedly stressed the need to bridge a growing gap between European citizens and EU institutions. He promised to make decisions on GM crops more democratic by requiring the Commission to take into account major opposition to GM crops. It’s important that Juncker stands by his promise and does not sacrifice the interests of Europeans for the sake of a trade agreement with the US.”

Ignoring the majority

Among the ten priorities for his term as Commission president, Juncker committed to make the EU “more democratic”. Part of his plan included “reviewing the laws that oblige the Commission to authorise genetically modified organisms, even when a majority of national governments is against this”.

The review of EU GMO rules was prompted by a vote on 11 February 2014 on the authorisation for cultivation of a maize, known as 1507, that has been genetically modified to release a pesticide. Nineteen EU countries opposed its cultivation in Europe, and only five voted in favour. However, under current rules the Commission can ignore this solid opposition and authorise the GMO.                          

The EU’s GMO approval system

The EU can authorise imports of GM food and feed into the EU, as well as the cultivation of GM crops within the EU’s territory. So far, about 50 GMOs have been approved for import, mostly from the Americas, and only one GM crop can be lawfully grown in the EU, Monsanto’s GM maize, MON810, which is mainly grown in Spain. Nine EU countries have banned the cultivation of MON810. A further 17 GMOs are awaiting final Commission approval for import, and one GM crop – Pioneer’s GM maize 1507 – is awaiting final approval for cultivation.

To obtain an EU authorisation, biotech companies must file an application with the Commission. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) then assesses health and environmental risks, before recommending the approval or rejection of the GMO. Armed with a positive EFSA opinion, the Commission pushes for an authorisation. National governments can stop the approval if a “double majority” of at least 55% of votes, comprising at least 15 governments and representing at least 65% of the European population (a so-called qualified majority) opposes the decision.

Breaking promises

According to the latest intelligence on the review of authorisations for imports of GM food and feed, the Commission is considering a system where countries could opt out of GMO imports that have been authorised at the EU level. This system would be similar to new rules in force for the cultivation of GM crops. It would allow the Commission to continue authorising GMOs even when a majority of national governments, the European Parliament and public opinion oppose authorisation.

In a letter sent on 8 April, environment and food NGOs, and organic farmers, urged Juncker not to break his promise to make EU GMO rules more democratic. They also warned that his plan to grant national governments a theoretical right to opt out of GM crop imports may not hold up to EU common market or international trade rules.

All-round criticism

Pressure is mounting from the biotech industry and the US – particularly in the context of transatlantic trade talks – to increase the number of GMOs authorised in Europe, and to speed up authorisation procedures.

A group of 13 EU industry associations have also been critical of the plan, saying the move would “severely jeopardize the Internal Market for food and feed products” and run counter to the EU’s treaties. The US Biotech Crops Alliance asked for a “commitment to uphold and not fragment the EU's single-market for imported biotech crops” so as to reflect the EU’s goals in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks.

A majority of EU citizens are sceptical about GMOs in food and agriculture. In 2010, more than one million people signed a European petition to ban GMOs until a new independent scientific body is established to assess their safety. Many European governments and the European Parliament have frequently opposed the authorisation of GM crops.


Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy director, mobile +32 (0)498 36 24 03,

Greenpeace EU press desk: +32 (0)2 274 19 11,

For breaking news and comment on EU affairs: www.twitter.com/GreenpeaceEU

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