Creating, selling and cultivating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raises a number of decisive human rights issues. Therefore, we urged all readers who are residing in the EU and/or are EU citizens to join the protest against the EU Commission’s attempts to extend GMO maize cultivation in the EU. This post is a continuous update on the process, and tells you about the mail I received from the EU Commission in February 2017.
For the first time since 1998, people in the EU are again confronted with attempts to grow genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their countries. The EU Commission wanted to take a decision about this by vote on Friday, 27 January 2017.
The agenda of the meeting specified: two new strains of GM maize — Bt11 by Syngenta and 1507 by DuPont Pioneer — could be cultivated and Monsanto’s MON810, which has already been grown in Spain and Portugal, is open for re-approval. These three decisions were taken by vote from political representatives to the EU Commission. Therefore, EU citizens and residents could influence it – and we asked you to join by advertising the platform which the Green’s MEP offered.
Voting Results Only Available at the Grapevine
What are the voting results from 27 January 2017? According to the French press agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), there was no qualified majority to oppose the approval so it is now up to the EU Commission to take a decision. All leading German newspapers took up this piece of information.
But what are the next steps? According to the rules of decision-making, this voting result means that the EU Commission can (a) reject the GM authorisations, (b) change their details and ask governments again, or (c) send them to an appeal committee.
I was interested in the precise voting results since I had invested time to urge the two German ministers (Ministries of agriculture and environment) to oppose GMO cultivation, and asked others – like you – to join me. Some organisations like GM Freeze specify:
13 EU Member States rejected Bt11 by Syngenta and 1507 by DuPont Pioneer while 8 Member States wanted to allow them being commercially cultivated in the EU .
12 EU Member States wanted to remove the existing GM maize wheras 10 Member States wanted to keep Monsanto’s product
I was surprised to learn that they did not cite an official source from the EU Commission. Neither did Greenpeace which provides a very useful voting break-down by country. Looking for minutes of the meeting and voting records, I wandered along endless pages by the EU Commission. Assuming that I just could not see it, I started asking around for people with more knowledge.
Apparently, the minutes should have been published at the official meeting page. As of 7 February 2017 – and also on 9 march 2017 while I update this post – , there are no minutes. Then, I received the very helpful hint that the EU Commission normally publishes voting records (called: voting sheets) at its Comitology register. You simply type in the date of the meeting – 27 January 2017 – and specify which service is in charge – DG Health and Food Safety. Ready, set, go! That is exactly what I did. Only there were no voting sheets, and neither draft proposals by the member states.
Instead, the EU Commission offered me to request these documents. It takes a little bit of time and the willingness to provide your (or some other) postal address. Since the EU Commission is financed by tax money, I found this lack of transparency sufficiently annoying to requess documentation of all voting sheets as well as the proposals submitted by governments. Apparently, it depends on a bunch of regulations whether I will be lucky enough to get an insight and this may take up to 30 days (cf. screen shot above). Thanks to some other regulation, I am supposed to receive a reply within 15 working days (cf. screen shot below).
Why is this information secret? And how did it get leaked?
After some hours of research I found that I do not know anything. Why is the information on the voting de facto secret?
I could not find an answer to that, but was told that only the EU Commission and government representatives are allowed to attend meetings like this. I assume that the EU Commission informed the AFP. Greenpeace must have received the detailed information which includes the country-by-country break-down through some other channels.
This causes me to worry: do people need to simply trust Greenpeace – an entity which does not have any official source and which cannot verify the result as long as there is no official documentation?
Yes, and the lack of transparency gets even worse. Some lovely little bird shared this voting sheet template with me (cf. below). At first sight, the sheet is absolutely unspectacular. The interesting questions only become apparent when we ask: what is absent? The EU Commission does not state countries, but only their number and population share. This may suit decision-making rules very well.
As a concerned citizen, I would like to know whether my government representatives take the position they claim. Otherwise, we have the unfortunate situation that politicians blame the EU when they speak in public in their home state while acting contrary to their public speeches when they vote in Brussels.
As a European at heart, I would like to ensure that I criticise the right person and/or institution when I desire a policy change. Currently, I depend on the existence of somebody in the room with some connections to an organisation outside of the meeting room to receive some information which I cannot even verify when the voting sheet is officially published. If this is not inviting suspicions, I do not know what will.
But this argument is jumping two steps ahead: currently, we do not even now whether the three voting sheets (one for each GMO strain of maize) will be published at all.
We only know that the EU Commission is deciding on the next steps. It may decide not to allow the continued cultivation of one strain of GMO maize and reject the authorisation of two new GMO strains. Or it allows them, or it changes the details and asks governments again.
Why Is This Secrecy Problematic?
Why do I invest so much time in expressing my disapproval to politicians who vote for GMOs, and then spend even more time trying to find out the voting results?
I regard GMOs as a huge danger to human, animal and plant health. For the past ten years, I have volunteered for GMWatch, a very GMO-critical organisation. Reading and translating numerous articles on GMOs, I have seen that growing GMOs on one farm, in one region or one country, also effects on other ecosystems. We live on an interactive planet. The dangers of GMOs outweigh potential opportunities.
Yes, it is true that some countries like Germany have exempted their territority from commercial approval of GMOs. Unfortunately, it is also true that field trials where GMOs are cultivated for research purposes are still conducted. It is a very basic fact of biology that pollen are spread through wind and that wind does not care about field trial limitations. Neither does wind care about frontiers so even if the German government wakes up to this fact, other countries allowing GMOs still impact the environment in Germany.
What Can You Do?
Some people assume that I will not receive any documents because the EU Commission is going to wait until the final decision on growing the three GMO strains of maize in the EU is taken. I was recommended to request the documents anyways – to draw attention to the fact that people are watching the decision-making process.
I have done this tedious work. If you have some 20-30 minutes, get yourself a nice cup of some beverage, put on some nice music on and go online to the Comitology register. You simply type in the date of the meeting and specify which service is in charge . Then you see a list of documents.
Ideally, you can download all voting sheets and government proposals, email them to me and prove me wrong. In a less than ideal world, you can request all documents except the agendas (already available) by giving your full name, postal address and email address. Thanks for taking the time! It shows the Transparency Unit at the EU Commission that people closely follow the debate.
NEW: Email And Postal Mail From The EU Commission
On 16 and 21 February, I received an email from the EU Commission, and after these dates also two letters. The first email and letter contained the voting sheets which you see on this photo:
Just as in the exemplary voting sheet above, these papers only state the number of countries and the percentage of the EU population they represent. The voting sheets support the NGOs’ and media reporting that in no case a sufficient amount of at least 65 percent of the population within the EU voted – via their Member States – in favour or against the commercialisation and renewal of GMO maize. All sheets state that the decision-making on growing and selling on GMO maize in the EU is made in a type of procedure described in Article 5 of Regulation 182/2011 of the European Council and the European Parliament:
“The Commission shall conduct consultations with the Member States. 14 days at the earliest and 1 month at the latest after the committee meeting, the Commission shall inform the committee members of the results of those consultations and submit a draft implementing act to the appeal committee.”
According to the grapevine, the Appeal Committee will vote on 27 March 2017.
I guess that those lobbying EU Member States on GMOs know in which way the different states voted. But as a citizen opposed to GMOs, the voting sheets did not help me at all in answering this question. When I requested all documents from this meeting via the online system, this request also included insight into the Member States’ proposals. I did not expect to receive copies since I assumed that the proposals also indicate how the state offering the proposal is likely to have voted. Indeed, on 21 February, I received an email refusing these documents while refering to Article 4(3) of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001:
They gave me the option to ask for a review, but a little birdie brought some proposals into my mail box. The writing style is the usual draft, but it safe to say that they support the overview given by GM Freeze and Greenpeace about the votes cast by specific states, except that France appears to have wanted to approve the maize Bt11.
The reform proposal presented by the EU Commission in February 2017 included the idea to publish how EU Member States vote in committees such as the committees charged with approval of GMOs. But the reform proposal also suggests to no longer count those states abstaining from casting a vote. For our debate, this would mean that only the percentage of the EU population living in those states voting for and against the cultivation of GMOs would decide whether there are GMOs grown and sold in the EU. Presented as a move towards increasing democracy, civil society organisations oppose the idea. They demand instead
“a qualified majority of all EU countries to be mandatory when deciding to allow the use of potentially hazardous products and food preparation processes.”
I was told that the reform offered by the EU Commission and the ensuing risk are highly unlikely to materialise into life because Member States do not like the proposal and neither do industry groups which oppose the potentially longer periods for approval.
The reform proposal looks like an attempt by the EU Commission to shift responsibility back to the EU Member States which simply do not want to displease industry groups by taking a public stance against GMOs while promising their citizens to represent their wishes against GMO cultivation. Hence, Member States prefer not to be publicly named for their voting conduct, nor to be pushed by the EU Commission to be the ones to make the decision. Instead, it continues to be up to the EU Commission and the Appeal Committee to conduct negotiations and get their hands dirty. On 27 March 2017 the Appeal Committee is said to cast its vote on allowing GMO maize to be cultivated and sold in the EU. Watch this space, and the websites of organisations such as GM Freeze, Greenpeace and GMWatch to stay up to date!