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28 October 2011

Europe this week

Table of content:

Genetically modified organisms

Adjusting the EU's GMO legislation

Offshore oil and gas operations

Ensuring European platforms apply highest safety standards

Genetically modified organisms

Adjusting the EU's GMO legislation

  • Protecting health and the environment

  • and contributing to the creation of a European internal market…

These are the two major objectives of the EU's legislation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The European Commission – the European Union (EU's) executive body- has published two reports carried out by independent consultants.

These reports evaluate the EU's legislative framework in the field of genetically modified food and feed and in that of GMOs cultivation.

Although the stakeholders and competent authorities in the Member States broadly support the main objectives of the EU's policy, these objectives are being implemented in a difficult political context and they are not being fully met as intended by the legislators:

  • the authorisation system could be made more efficient

  • there is a need for more flexibility and freedom as regards GMO cultivation

  • and a need for further harmonisation of the risk assessment process.

The evaluation provides a substantive amount of material for fine tuning ongoing adjustments of the EU approach to GMOs.


The evaluations conclude that there is an expected increase in the number of countries growing GM crops, as well as increases in the type of GM crops in the EU.

The developments are likely to result in an increasing number of applications for authorisation in the EU, which could lead to low level presence of unauthorised GMOs in imported products (feeds, food and seeds). The Commission is addressing this problem through a step-by-step approach, tackling the affected sectors in order of priority. An EU law addressing low level presence of unauthorised GMOs entered into force on 15 July 2011.

As a matter of fact

The availability of GM-labelled food products in the EU is extremely limited:

  • The range of GM-labelled products consists primarily of soybean oil for cooking and some imported products

  • There are no retailer own-brand labelled GM products.

In the spotlight

The European Food Safety Authority

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was set up in January 2002, following a series of food crises in the late 1990s, as an independent source of scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain. EFSA was created as part of a comprehensive programme to improve EU food safety, ensure a high level of consumer protection and restore and maintain confidence in the EU food supply.

In the European food safety system, risk assessment is done independently from risk management. As the risk assessor, EFSA produces scientific opinions and advice to provide a sound foundation for European policies and legislation and to support the European Commission, European Parliament and EU Member States in taking effective and timely risk management decisions. Its Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) deals with genetically modified organisms and genetically modified food and feed.

Under European legislation, all GMOs and derived products must be evaluated by EFSA before they can be authorised in the EU. For any GMO and derived food or feed to be authorised in the EU, a company must submit an authorisation application in line with European legislation. The European Commission forwards the application to EFSA and requests a scientific risk assessment. EFSA’s GMO Panel carries out a detailed risk assessment to evaluate the safety of the GMO and derived food or feed. The Panel’s independent scientific advice is then used by the Commission and Member States when taking a decision on market approval.


There are two GMOs that are commercially cultivated in the EU:

  • One GM maize (MON810, a genetically modified Maize variety from Monsanto, genetically modified to protect the crop against a harmful pest – the European corn borer.)

  • and a GM starch potato (the "Amflora" potato). This starch potato has increased amylopectin starch content. The starch is intended for industrial uses, such as production of paper.

GMOs are authorised at EU level on a case-by case basis on the basis of the particular uses defined by the application of the company, after a positive assessment of health and environmental risks. There are 43 GMOs authorised in the EU for food and feed uses, including one sugar beet, three soybean, three oilseed-rape, six cotton and 17 maize products. They can be found in the EU Register for GM food and feed:

The vast majority of compound feed (85-90%) is labelled as GM and up to 95% of soybean imports. These figures have been on the rise as planting of GM events increases.

There is a relatively small niche market of non-GM feed for the "organic" segment and non-GM supply chains.

Country specific

Eight EU countries have experience in GMO cultivation:

  • Czech Republic

  • Germany (Maize until 2008)

  • Spain (by far the largest)

  • France (until 2007)

  • Portugal

  • Romania,

  • Slovakia,

  • Sweden.

In the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania and Spain Bt maize is cultivated in regions with high levels of corn-borer infestation.

HT soybean generated higher average yields increases in Romania, until 2007.

In 2010:

  • MON810 was cultivated on almost 89 000 hectares in five Member States, in regions with high levels of corn borer infestations.

  • The Amflora potato on 265 hectares in 3 Member States, near starch processing plants.

  • HT Soya (until 2007 in Romania)

HT crops are usually cultivated by larger farmers and not by smallholders. There is little or no yield difference between HT or –conventional soybean (with exceptions such as situations where conventional weed control was very inefficient, i.e. conventional soybean in Romania).

Overall, HT technology reduces production cost but the premium price for HT seeds may result in small or no effects on economic gross margin for farmers, according to studies in the USA and Canada. In these cases, the rapid adoption by farmers is not associated with effects on farm income but with improved weed control, crop management simplification, facilitation of no-tillage practices and improvement of farmers' off-farm income due to time savings.

Apart from economic impact on farming, facts and statistics pertinent to the European Union context are missing. For the time being, the present and future socio-economic impacts of GMO cultivation in Europe, across the food chain and the society as a whole, are often not analysed in an objective manner.

Seven Member States (Austria, Hungary, France, Greece, Germany Bulgaria and Luxembourg) adopted safeguard measures and prohibited the cultivation of the GM maize MON810 on their territories.

Moreover, Austria, Luxembourg and Hungary have notified to the Commission the prohibition of the cultivation of the "Amflora" potato. Poland has legislation in place forbidding the marketing of all GM seeds.


1988: European Commission publishes proposals for two EU law (directives), one on the contained use of genetically modified microorganisms and the other on the deliberate release to the environment of GMOs.

1990: the two laws proposed by the Commission are adopted by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.

1998: cultivation of GM maize MON810 is authorized in the EU.

2001: directive 01/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of GMOs repealing the 1990 directive, is adopted by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. It outlines the principles for, and regulates, experimental releases and the placing on the market of GMOs in the EU, for uses other than food or feed.

2003: entry into force of Regulations 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed, 1830/2003 concerning the traceability and labelling of GMOs and the traceability of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms and 1946/2003 on transboundary movements of genetically modified organisms.

2010: GM starch potato is authorised for cultivation and industrial processing.

2011: EU law on low level presence of unauthorised GMOs in imported products (Regulation 619/2011) enters into force.

Looking ahead

There is a full package of ongoing Commission initiatives to address key areas such as:

  • the need for more flexibility on GMO cultivation,

  • the compilation of technical information on the socio-economic implications of GMO cultivation,

  • the assessment of new plant breeding techniques,

  • the reinforcement of monitoring activities,

  • the review and transformation of the risk assessment guidelines into legal documents approved by Member States

  • and the upgraded communication activities on GMO issues.

Before the end of 2011, the Commission will launch a study to take stock of existing GMO-free labelling systems and assess the need for harmonisation in this field.


Offshore oil and gas operations

Ensuring European platforms apply highest safety standards

  • The major oil spill off the US coast in 2010 has prompted concern that a similar incident could occur in EU waters, where there has been offshore drilling for oil and gas since the 1970s.

  • The European Commission is reviewing industry practices and the work of national regulators to ensure they adequately protect public health and the natural environment in Europe.

  • International law does not address global safety, health and environmental standards for offshore oil and gas platforms. EU legislation applies to some of these aspects while a significant share is covered by national legislation, which currently varies from one EU country to another.

  • Against this background, the Commission has for the first time proposed comprehensive EU legislation to ensure that oil and gas platforms in all EU waters apply the highest safety, health and environmental standards.


  • National licensing procedures will be reviewed and key licensing conditions defined at EU level to ensure that only operators with the skills and capacity necessary to deal with complex offshore activities are allowed to operate in EU waters.

  • Greater emphasis will be placed on the safety of offshore operations across the EU and prevention of environmental risks.

  • The industry will be subject to more supervision, and information on the results of inspections will be more easily available from both companies and national regulatory bodies

  • Operators' liability for environmental damage from offshore accidents will be extended to all EU marine waters.

  • EU emergency response resources (including those of the European Maritime Safety Agency) will be used more efficiently to protect the environment against oil spills from offshore installations.

  • The EU will work with non-EU countries and relevant organisations to promote the highest standards on offshore operations outside EU waters but which could affect European shores.

  • Oil and gas companies registered in the EU should also apply the EU standards when they operate abroad.

As a matter of fact

For damage to waters, the present EU legal framework for environmental liability is restricted to territorial waters (about 22 km offshore). With the Commission proposal, the geographical zone will be extended to cover all EU marine waters, including the exclusive economic zone (up to about 370 km from the coast) and the continental shelf where the coastal Member State exercise jurisdiction.

In the spotlight

    The EU Civil Protection Mechanism

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism can be activated to coordinate European assistance in offshore pollution events. The Mechanism is available 24/7.

    The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was created in 2001. Its main role is to facilitate co-operation in civil protection assistance interventions in the event of major emergencies which may require urgent response actions. This applies also to situations where there may be an imminent threat of such major emergencies.

The Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC), the operational heart of the Mechanism, gives countries access to a platform, to a one-stop-shop of civil protection means available amongst all the participating states. Any country inside or outside the Union affected by a major disaster can make an appeal for assistance through the MIC. It acts as a communication hub at headquarters level between participating states, the affected country and despatched field experts. It also provides useful and updated information on the actual status of an ongoing emergency. Last but not least, the MIC plays a co-ordination role by matching offers of assistance put forward by participating states to the needs of the disaster-stricken country.

    Presently, as far as offshore accidents are concerned, there are no EU law requirements on issues such as sharing, placing or compatibility of response assets, maintenance of industry asset inventories or cross-border emergency response. In 2010, the response effort in the United States following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was complicated precisely by lack of inventories and available assets and by compatibility problems.

The law proposed by the European Commission will ensure transparency., It will provide for better emergency preparedness and response, with effective emergency plans and assets in place both in industry and at the level of Member States.


    Over 90% of oil and over 60% of gas produced in Europe (EU and Norway) comes from offshore operations.

    There are more than 1000 offshore oil or gas installations in operation in European waters.

    Offshore operations (exploration and exploitation) are ongoing in the territorial waters of 12 Member States. Other Member States plan to commence drilling activities in the near future.

    Past events show that major offshore accidents have occurred around the world relatively frequently, on average once every 10 years.

    The outcome costs of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 are $40 billion, according to the operator of the license, BP.

    Available statistics indicate that major offshore events, stemming from irregular situations and leading to either risks of or occurrence of damage, occur more frequently than is commonly assumed. 573 such incidents (offshore blowouts and well releases) have occurred worldwide since 1955.

    Tangible costs for offshore accidents in Europe: assuming a recurrence rate of 35 years for each major incident and an average economic cost of €5 billion, this amounts to €140 million per year. Add to this an estimated annual figure of €65 million in property losses resulting from more common, less serious documented accidents.

    Country specific

    Out of the nearly 1000 offshore installations operating in the EU, 486 are in the UK, 181 in the Netherlands, 61 in Denmark, 2 in Germany, 2 in Ireland, 123 in Italy, 4 in Spain, 2 in Greece, 7 in Romania, 1 in Bulgaria and 3 in Poland. Drilling operations have recently started in Cyprus. In Malta, offshore licences have been awarded. Some exploration wells have been drilled, but currently there are no offshore activities in Maltese waters.

    The majority of offshore oil and gas in Europe is produced in the Danish, Dutch, German, Norwegian and UK sections of the North and Norwegian Seas.

    Roughly half of the producing installations in the North Sea are past their predicted production life and the mobile rig fleet is ageing, with a number of mobile rigs of 1970's vintage.

    The North Sea, together with the adjacent Norwegian Sea, has almost 50 years of experience of oil and gas operations. Building on the lessons of two unrelated offshore disasters in the 1980s in which 291 men died (Alexander Kielland in 1981 and Piper Alpha in 1988), the North Sea regulatory regimes have been reviewed and extensively revised in a number of national jurisdictions, including the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

    The offshore industry in different Member States operates to different environmental, health and safety standards.

    Norway (a member of the European Economic Area, not of the European Union) operates offshore activities in water depths of up to 1 300 meters. Many countries want to follow Norway's example: In the UK, West of Shetlands, exploration is planned in depths of up to 1 600 meters, near the Faroe Islands at a sea depth of 1 100 meters. Norway's recently released report points out areas for significant improvements despite the fact that the Norwegian safety regime is generally regarded as top-level by global comparison. About one fifth of deepwater discoveries worldwide were made in European, mainly Norwegian, waters in 2009-10.

    Romania has awarded a licence for drilling in the Black Sea, at a water depth of 1 000 meters.

    In Lybian waters, in the Mediterranean, wells were drilled at 1 500 meters and beyond, but drillings are also planned in water depth exceeding 2 000 meters. In Egypt, wells are planned in waters up to 2 700 meters.

    Offshore production also occurs in the Mediterranean, the Black and the Baltic Seas. With the exception of Italian waters, activities in these areas are relatively recent but are increasing. Some of these countries have less experience in managing offshore operations;

    In the UK and Norway, 2.3 offshore blowouts/well releases occurred per year between 1980 and 2008 on average.

    In the 31 years between Mexico's 1979 Ixtox and the USA's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disasters, there have been at least 9 other offshore disasters of a major scale, and a large number of lesser incidents that could have resulted in total loss of the rig or platform instead of the smaller damage or pollution that actually happened in those cases.


    1992: directive on drilling extractive industries comes into force.

    2004: environmental liability directive comes into force.

    2007: European Commission adopts an integrated maritime policy.

    2010: deadline for the transposition into Member States' legislation of the revised EU Waste Framework directive.

    Looking ahead

    The new requirements will be applicable to new installations and operations immediately after the adoption of this new law by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.

    Transitional periods of maximum 2 years are foreseen for existing installations.

    The new rules could therefore enter into force in 2014 for existing production installations.

    For planned production installations, there is a transition period of one year. This means that the rules could apply from 2013 onwards.

    The Commission is putting forward a proposal for the EU to accede to a Protocol of the Barcelona Convention that protects the Mediterranean against pollution from offshore exploration and exploitation activities.

    The Commission is also finalising an electronic guidance document on waste law which will include a section clarifying that, in accordance with the European Court's jurisprudence, oil spills are considered as waste under the EU waste legislation, with the resulting "polluter pays" consequences for the management of such waste to the waste producer.


    European Commission site on offshore standards:

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