The European Commission told just-food that it wholly rejects claims by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth that it has adopted a double standard in its attitude to the licensing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), stating that licenses were not granted where safety concerns remained unaddressed.

The environmental groups today (18 April) launched a scathing attack on the EC’s policy towards GMOs, suggesting that the cultivation and sale of GM foods and crops should be immediately suspended.

Under the freedom of information act, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace obtained a copy of the report submitted to the World Trade Organisation by the Commission. The report, they claim, raises serious concerns about the long-term consequences of GMOs on the environment and human health.

However, Philip Tod, spokesperson for health and consumer protection at the EC, told just-food that these points were taken out of context.

“The documents run to hundreds of pages and Friends of the Earth are selectively quoting from what is a very long and complex document which concerns the situation before May 2004, date of the entry into force of the new EU legislative framework for GMOs,” he said.

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The WTO case, Tod said, concern delays in the licensing of GMOs because the EC was unwilling to permit their sale or cultivation until safety concerns were satisfied.  

“It is perfectly normal that the Commission seeks to make its legal case to the WTO to the best of its ability based on scientific and technical arguments where necessary. These documents set out the case that the Commission has made to the WTO, and in public: that scientific uncertainties and disagreement for some applications covered by the WTO case explain the time which needed to be taken before authorisations could be granted.

“The Commission has consistently argued that we are entitled to set our own appropriate level of protection, and to take the time needed to obtain the information necessary to meet that level of protection and to consider the concerns legitimately raised by scientists, legislators and stakeholders, when assessing GMO product applications,” he said.

Tod highlighted the EC’s position that it would not authorise GMOs while there remained unanswered questions about the safety of such products. “It is one thing to take that time to examine data where there are doubts, it is another thing to conclude that the products in question are not safe. Authorisation is only given when the Commission considers, based on assessments of EFSA and scientific bodies of member States, that the products are safe.”

However, addressing a conference on GMO co-existence in Vienna in early April, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas expressed concerns about the quality of information available on the long-term health and environmental effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He also suggested that the European Food Safety Authority was too reliant on data provided by the biotech industry and said that the agency had undergone an external evaluation that suggested various changes were needed to its risk assessment practices.

Tod said, although there was no threat to human health or the environment, these issues are being addressed. “Last week,” he commented, “the Commission decided to work on further improvements on the authorisation procedure, with among others, the aim of prevent or address in a more transparent way possible disagreements on the scientific assessment of GM products.”