The genetically modified organisms (GMO) debate has raged for years, and is one of the more controversial issues Parliament has had to deal with. Last year, MEPs voted against granting member states the right to prohibit or restrict the sale of GMO food on their territory, meaning it is up to the European Commission to authorise GMOs. However, it has come under fire for the lack of transparency of the authorisation process, and been accused of pandering to lobbyists.
Giovanni La Via, Chair of the Parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee, points out that, "beyond the different ideological positions, the main objectives we have set ourselves as politicians and as legislators, are to create a precise legal framework and to raise awareness among our citizens."
"The legal framework must take into account serious risk assessments, on the basis of rigorous criteria, in order to proceed with innovation, safeguarding the needs and rights of our citizens, consumers and industries."
La Via believes that, "agro-genetics are a great opportunity. In the past, important new product characteristics were made possible through GMO technologies that led to the creation of new proteins. Many doubts were raised on these new proteins regarding the potential risks to human health and the environment."
"Today, thanks to research and innovation, and with new genetic modification techniques employing RNAi (epigenetic mechanism by which certain RNA fragments are able to influence gene expression), it is possible to obtain valuable characteristics for the agricultural sector, such as resistance to pests."
This is why the Italian MEP is confident, "as a scientist first and also as a politician," that "the new generation of GMOs could represent an important opportunity for European agriculture, provided that they are safe for humans and for the environment."
Herbert Dorfmann, who sits on Parliament's agriculture committee, highlights that the GMO debate's sensitive nature stems from the fact that, "ethical and scientific considerations overlap."
He also argues that, "current varieties of GMOs do not respond to urgent needs such as growing with less water or fertilizers. In most cases, they help plants develop a resistance to certain herbicides, making it possible to use a specific product on a given crop. This results in a dependency on a phytosanitary product."
Dorfmann believes this is the reason why, "public opinion has usually been opposed to genetic engineering. This general refusal makes having an in-depth debate particularly difficult."
He says it is important to distinguish between the different techniques - 'cisgenesis' - modifying a gene with another gene from the same pool, which could also occur through traditional breeding - and 'transgenesis', modifying a gene in a way that could never happen naturally.
"Today's genetic engineering is different from 10 or 20 years ago. However, European norms do not distinguish between the two techniques, and deal with all products of genetic engineering in the same way."
He adds that, "We need to focus on the opportunities and the risks of genetic engineering and overcome the current state of discussion, which is often emotional rather than scientific."
Daniel Buda, also a member of the agriculture committee, warns that; "Despite the need for oversight and regulation, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stricter rules would inhibit innovation. In order to prevent circumvention of EU GMO regulations, member states should adopt a set of common guidelines."
"These should include standardised labelling of products grown from modified seeds. There needs to be greater transparency to ensure consumers make an informed choice."
EFDD group member Stuart Agnew is strongly in favour of GMOs, arguing that, "In general, GM technology reduces dependence on herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and soil-loosening cultivations."
"The technology is not all about making life easier for farmers. GM technology can synthesise omega oils in rapeseed, previously unique to fish oil, and ease pressure on fish stocks. For those with allergies to gluten, the technology can remove gluten from wheat. Farmers are not fools. If they did not like GM crops, they would not buy the seeds. They do so voluntarily year after year, despite the extra cost."
However, some MEPs are outraged that the decision to authorise GMOs on EU soil lies solely with the Commission.
Agnew's EFDD group colleague, Eleonora Evi, explains that, "the legislation allows the Commission to submit authorisation requests to a special technical committee, consisting of member state representatives. For a request to be approved or denied, there needs to be a qualified majority. However, if there is no majority, the Commission can adopt the proposal on its own."
Bart Staes, Parliament's rapporteur on reviewing the decision-making process on GMOs, points out that although Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised to review the procedural rules for GMO authorisations in July 2014, he has not kept his promise.
"Instead of seeing how EU decision-making could be truly democratised, and letting a simple majority of member states rule in the internal market, the Commission proposed an unworkable renationalisation of EU policy."
"Parliament rejected the proposal to allow national opt-outs, urging the Commission to go back to the drawing board and come forward with a plan that properly addresses the major flaws with the EU authorisation process."
He highlights that the majority of Europeans do not want GMOs on their plates, and that the current system is therefore "not very democratic. But according to the EuropaBio lobby and agrochemical giants such as Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto, this is how democracy works: first you help draft and influence definitions, regulations and legislation, then you influence how that regulation is implemented, then you hire science to 'prove' your business point, then you lobby media and members of parliaments."
"If that does not go according to plan, you ask other governments to file WTO complaints, you threaten to take the Commission to court, and you lobby some more. And in the end, citizens get unwanted GMO products, authorised by the Commission, and not labelled properly."