National bans on cultivation of GM crops: tactical manoeuvring in Berlin, lobbying in Brussels



The German federal government deceives the public that the cultivation of genetically modified plants will be banned soon. However, in the EU, the opposite is emerging.



The majority of the German public reject GM crops. Under the current EU law, member states (MS) may only prohibit the cultivation on their territory if they can demonstrate risks to health or the environment. Therefore, many people look to Brussels with hope of the new proposed national cultivation ban, which has been in discussion for months.

A representative of the German federal government announced in a meeting* on May 7th that in the EU a large majority for the national cultivation bans would be likely to occur. With such statements you can easily win over the public because this decision would buy enough time to prevent the sowing of maize 1507. At least this is the assumption that is being reported in the media for many months. But unfortunately, this seems not to be true.

It is very uncertain that a majority of MS will vote for national cultivation bans in the EU. This is indicated in the ‘Report on the ad hoc working group of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from 02/05/2014’. This so-called ‘wire report’ records the meetings of the working groups in Brussels. And it paints a very different picture than the German government currently wants to convey to the population. There is currently no large majority in favour of the national cultivation ban.

Excessive tactical manoeuvring by the German federal government
On May 7th, the German federal government officially stated a ‘large majority’ within the EU states. Despite the knowing the contrary, it continued to discuss the national cultivation ban with all political groups. A spokesman for The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture states that they created a decisive report on May 5th very quickly. But two days later, the government directed the report to the political groups as a request in the Federal Press Office revealed.

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In public the German government continues its zigzag course in genetic engineering policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has hinted that she has given up her opposition to national cultivation bans. Merkel said in the daily ‘Leipziger Volkszeitung’ that, although reports have repeatedly shown that the use is scientifically acceptable, at the same time she as the Chancellor has to ‘consider whether the public is going to accept GM crops and whether political majorities would go for this’. However, a government spokesman said that the federal government would decide on their position when the responsible bodies in the EU decide on the matter.

Critics such as GM expert Heike Moldenhauer (BUND) consider the submitted proposal as an ’empty promise’. She assumes that this will eventually facilitate the cultivation of GM crops in the EU. The most important point is that MS must consult the companies via the EU Commission whether they would allow them to ban GM crops on their national territory. This means that the companies are being given a say in this matter and would be put on a level with nations. ‘It is an absurdity – and probably unparalleled – to write something like this in a legislative act of the EU,’ criticizes Harald Ebner, GM spokesperson for the Green Party in the Bundestag. It is in the nature of things that companies want to maximize their profits. So why should a company voluntarily give up the launch of its seed in a certain country?

Lobbying for more GM crops
While the federal government in Berlin takes an unsteady stance on national cultivation bans, the industry associations in Brussels lobby for more GM crops. It is an open secret that in accordance with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) the American desire for a faster EU approval process plays an important role. European business associations are also lobbying heavily for more GM crops in fields and on plates. In a joint position paper, they call for ‘mutual recognition of equivalent risk assessment procedures’ by a ‘regulatory cooperation’ with the United States.

EuropaBio, the influential European association for biotechnology companies, is also heavily lobbying in Brussels. This is evidence from the 2012 three-page strategy paper ‘A New Strategy on GM Issues’ which GeneWatch UK obtained from the British Ministry of the Environment. More on the source of the document: here and here.

EuropaBio has been lobbying for over two years against a legislation to enable legally compliant national cultivation bans. The document states, for example, that the EU should ‘rework their wording’, so that MS may only impose bans if the company had previously rejected a voluntary agreement (= phase 1). ‘What could a package look like? An amended nationalisation proposal which:
– says that the proposal will only come into force when an AP** in seed threshold is agreed [**Adventitious Presence = low level of GM contamination]
– with reworked wording saying an MS can only use phase 2 if a company rejected phase 1.’

‘EuropaBio defines this first step as a prerequisite before governments can prohibit the cultivation in other ways. This stipulation of the GM industry can now be seen in the current legislation’ criticizes Mute Schimpf, speaker of “Friends of the Earth Europe”, an international coalition of environmental organisations.

Non-transparent deals with corporations?

The consequences could be severe. GM expert Heike Moldenhauer fears the following scenario: ‘The price that member states will pay in order to agree with a company to ban the cultivation on their own territory will be their general cultivation approval at EU level.’ In other words, there could be a deal: The price for negotiating with a company could be that the MS would not oppose any further EU bans. Thus, the number of EU-wide cultivation approvals would increase dramatically. Also, it is still not clear that an agrochemical company is not going to sue MS. 
The German Bundestag recently called on the federal government “to translate the possibilities for national opt outs on GMO cultivation into law.” But the fact that states are obliged to consult the companies before a ban, is not to be changed. However, the opposition wants to stop the legislation until an improved approval process for GM crops is negotiated. During negotiations there should be no new GMO approvals either. As a basis for further negotiations they favour the proposal of the French deputy Corinne Lepage, which was adopted by a large majority of the EU Parliament in 2011.

The EU Commission intends to adopt their own legislation as soon as possible. A straw poll is planned at the meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER) on May 28th. On June 12th  the EU Environment Council is scheduled to vote on the legislation.

But the voting procedure between Council, Parliament and Commission could take so long that a national ban on the cultivation of GM maize could come too late to stop the upcoming sowing of GM maize 1507. Whether for Germany the cultivation in 2015 is relevant at all seems to be ‘highly questionable’ according to a spokesman for the Federal Government, referring to the pending decision by the EU Commission and the approval of varieties. But with speedy processing of these two points, farmers could bring the controversial seed to their fields in Spring, before a national ban comes into force – and confront the population with a fait accompli.

*[1] Meeting at the Committee for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety.

Posted on May 27, 2014
(Original version in German, posted on May 25, 2014)