Chairman, Honourable Members,
Thank you for inviting me to this extraordinary meeting of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food safety to discuss the Commission proposal to amend the GM food and feed Regulation.
This proposal has attracted a great deal of interest in society, in the media and of course amongst Members of this Committee.
I have already discussed the issue of GMOs with you during the hearing and at the structural dialogue. But as we are in the middle of the legislative process, I am very pleased to be have a constructive dialogue with you today.
The proposal, as you know, derives from the set of political guidelines approved by the European Parliament in 2014. The guidelines clearly state that I quote 'under current rules, the Commission is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of Member States is against'. We are delivering on our mission to review the existing decision making process so that the Member States have more freedom of choice.
Now, how did we come to it?
To come to this proposal the Commission worked in full respect of the Treaties basing itself on a few principles. First and foremost the principle of safety, preserving the common internal market and in compliance with the Comitology procedure.
Let's start with safety. GMOs can be authorised and placed on the EU common market only if their safety for health and the environment has been assessed by the European Food Safety Authority based on high scientific standards.
This is of paramount importance. The fundamental principle of an EU authorisation system based on sound science must remain intact. We respected the principle of a scientific criteria and evidence-based decision.
Secondly, the Commission based itself on an empowerment democratically given by the European Parliament and the Council both in the legislation on GMOs and the Comitology procedure.
The Comitology procedure sets out the rules on how the decisions are taken and allows thousands of implementing measures to be adopted smoothly and without contention in a wide range of policy areas.
Let us remind ourselves what was the outcome of the authorisation procedure for GMOs and of the situation we were in during past 4 years.
Since 2003, none of 67 GM food and feed authorised have succeeded to attract a qualified majority either in favour or against the draft authorisation at the time of voting by the Member States.
To put it simply, in four years Member States could not draw the line between yes or no for GMOs, de facto leaving it to the Commission to decide.
This situation reflects the polarised views of Member States as regards GMOs, irrespective of their safety as demontsrated by EFSA, and despite the fact that the EU is dependent on imported protein crops to feed livestock. As you are well aware, the EU has to import 32 million tons of soya every year, most of which is GM to feed its livestock. The EU only produces 1,4 million tons of soya which is clearly not enough. Therefore banning GM imports means doing away with our capability of producing food because there is very little non-GM Soya on the world market and the little there is, is way more expensive.
Many of the Member States that abstained or voted against invoke "national political reasons" and the negative perception of their citizens towards GMOs. Consequently, the Commission had to take the responsibility to adopt the Decision of authorisation – to fulfil its legal obligation, without a clear opinion of Member States.
I would like to invite everyone to take their responsibilities. The time has come to acknowledge that status quo is not sustainable.
This situation can give way to many interpretations, creates legal uncertainties and last but not least contributes towards a detrimental climate of distrust against the European Union as a whole and its Institutions.
We need to find a mechanism that works and to avoid further confrontation.
This is why the political guidelines that this House approved enshrined a commitment to review the decision-making process and to give more weight to the views of democratically elected governments.
How should we address this challenge?
During the review the Commission has explored various options.
The proposal we are here to discuss today is, in the Commission's view, the most proportionate and balanced solution.
Other options explored by the Commission had indeed shown major shortcomings.
- For instance, changing the Comitology Regulation only for GMOs could not be justified and would have been discriminatory: why changing the rules for GMOs only?
- The option of changing voting rules was neither possible: they are set in the Treaty to ensure the democratic balance between the respective weights of the 28 Member States.
- Finally, giving back to Member States the competence to decide on GMO authorisation would not be tenable, as it would mean accepting different safety levels among Member States.
This is why the review of the decision-making process for the authorisation of GMOs as food and feed concluded that the most appropriate approach would be to extend the provisions of the new Directive on GMO cultivation to GM food and feed that this Parliament has recently approved.
In essence, Member States would be given the possibility to restrict, or prohibit the use of authorised GMOs in food or feed on their territory on compelling grounds other than health and protection of environment which are already assessed by EFSA.
The proposal provides a legal basis for Member States to ban or not to ban, depending of their particular national circumstances.
Member States which decide to ban the GMOs will be responsible for paying particular attention to the impacts of their decisions, particularly on the socio-economic circumstances, jobs creation and growth as well as the situation of their farmers and operators.
Therefore I would like to ask everyone to play fair here. The Commission will still be in charge as regards GM authorisations, which would continue to be granted at European level. However Member States who have identified very serious legitimate concerns about the use of GMOs will have the possibility to present these concerns and to restrict the use of GMOs on their territory.
How would the new system work?
Firstly, the proposal foresees conditions to apply the “restrictions" in order to ensure their compatibility with the Treaty and international obligations.
Measures would be based on compelling grounds, be proportionate and not discriminatory.
Let me expand on these important concepts.
First of all, the Member States could not base their restrictions or bans on grounds which conflict with the element considered by EFSA during the risk assessment. They could only use “compelling grounds” unrelated to science.
"Other legitimate factors” is a notion already present in the legislation. The Commission can use these in the context of the decision of authorisation, but in practice, due to the divergent views of Member States, the Commission has never been in a position to identify legitimate factors valid at EU-level which could justify refusing an authorisation.
The proposal seeks to allow Member States to use these "compelling grounds", based on their own national situation. This is in line with the subsidiarity approach.
Let me also stress that the use of compelling grounds by the Member States is compatible with the single market rules. Indeed, the Treaty foresees the possibility to derogate to the Single Market for “overriding reasons of public interest”.
The movement of GM food and feed would be preserved. Member States could not ban the free circulation and import – only the use. Member States would not be allowed to ban food and feed where GMOs are present at trace level.
Other Member States and the Commission would have the possibility to comment on the draft opt out measures.
Chairman, Honourable Members,
Our review confirmed a diagnostic that simply cannot be ignored – the authorisation system for GMOs faces a political challenge which must be resolved since trust in European Institutions – all European Institutions - is at stake.
The Commission has put on the table a proposal which answers this challenge in a proportionate and appropriate way.
I therefore appeal to Honourable Members to engage in constructive discussions on this proposal in the months to come.
Thank you for your attention and I am ready to take your questions.