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Commissioner for Health and Consumer Politics
Full picture of GMO cultivation is now shaping up
Hearing at the European Parliament on the socio-economic dimensions of GMO cultivation
Brussels, 18 October 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
I am very pleased to welcome you to this conference on the socio-economic dimensions of GMO cultivation.
This is the second in a series of conferences on GMO related issues. I hope that, in bringing everybody concerned to the same table and in sharing our knowledge and experience, it will enable us to move forward towards a more informed and less polarised dialogue.
Our first fruitful debate on risk assessment and management last March touched upon the authorisation procedure and the science behind it.
The scientific risk assessment is -and will remain- the foundation of our authorisation system. But it is clear that in the debate on GMOs, other factors than risks to health and environment deserve a better understanding.
Experience shows that GMO cultivation cannot be seen in isolation from its geographical, economic and social context. These aspects also need to be considered in all stages of the process: from the field to the end consumer.
It is with this in mind that today we will look at the current level of knowledge in the EU and worldwide. We will pay particular attention to the co-existence of GMO cultivation with conventional and organic crops.
Our conference today needs to be placed in the framework of the 2008 Environment Council conclusions, which required the Commission, Member States and EFSA, to implement better the GMO legislation. The Council Conclusions reflect the feeling that information on socio-economic aspects of GMO cultivation was incomplete and that a full picture of the state of knowledge was lacking.
Therefore, the Council invited the Member States to collect and exchange relevant information on the socio-economic implications of GMO cultivation. It fixed a deadline of January 2010 for Member States to reply.
The exercise proved to be more difficult than initially expected, however, and it took another year – until January 2011 - for the Commission to receive Member States' input.
This meant that the report based on Member States information, that Council had asked the Commission to submit for consideration and further discussion, was published only in April 2011.
I know that you are aware of the content of this report and I know some of you are somewhat disappointed with what proved to be little more than a first scoping exercise.
In general, Member States' contributions seemed to reflect polarised opinions built upon a limited fact-based background on the European context, and influenced by their initial positive or negative perception of GM crops. Only a few Member States have actual experience with GMO cultivation and even then, surface area is limited.
Facts and statistics relevant to the European context are lacking to support the views expressed by the Member States and stakeholders that contributed to the report. This is particularly the case for the production steps beyond the farm gate and for the social dimensions.
Therefore we must ask fundamental questions:
First, I certainly see a role for the Commission in helping Member States to collect and share information on the basis of more objective and science based indicators and data sources.
A sound methodological approach is needed to get clarity from sometimes conflicting results. This is particularly relevant in the current economic crisis, where efficiency gains and food availability and sustainability in the wider sense acquire an acute significance.
Second, whilst the European perspective is important, we must learn from experience -good and bad- in other parts of the world and we must take account of all those concerned.
I want this process to be broad and include knowledge on GMO cultivation acquired by third countries as well by a wide range of stakeholders, some of them very active in this field. I am glad to count on their presence today to take stock of the most recent literature, data and actual practices.
I see also a role for industry in engaging in corporate social responsibility as a tool to build trust in the technology and to develop products with a wider range of positive impacts.
A more transparent communication by industry may also provide useful input to a more informed debate. I am thinking in particular about measures and communication on the impact – social, environmental and economic - of products throughout the food chain through tools such as sustainability impact assessments.
Third- and taking into account the most recent debates - perhaps most importantly - European and global knowledge and stakeholders' input need to be combined with the know-how of managing cultivation on the ground. We cannot talk about the socio-economic implications of GMO cultivation without addressing the co-existence aspects.
Farmers need to adapt to a constantly changing environment and demand sufficient predictability to remain competitive.
Therefore, the importance of a hands-on approach whereby Member States organise the co-existence of GM, conventional and organic crops in their territory and define clear measures cannot be underestimated.
The Commission, with the collaboration of its Joint Research Centre, sets benchmarks to assist Member States in the development of national co-existence rules. The recent Court ruling on GM pollen in honey shows the important role that the European Co-existence Bureau plays in providing technical guidelines to adapt to particular challenges.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me conclude by underlining, that one clear issue arising from the report and from the Member States' contributions is how this issue is shaped by national perceptions and realities, even in the absence of a broad knowledge base. But, before reaching any definitive conclusions I believe we should build a more solid basis of standardised and objective data.
Today's conference marks a milestone in going beyond what the Council asked the Member States and the Commission to do back in December 2008.
Today we launch an inclusive process to define the state of knowledge in this area and move away from polarised perceptions towards a more informed dialogue.
Thank you very much.