By Martha Moss - 13th January 2011
Efforts must be made to improve transparency and dialogue by all of us
European health commissioner John Dalli
This cancer of conflict of interest must be stopped
ALDE deputy Corinne Lepage
Your interests and the environment's interests are completely protected
Martina Newell-McGloughlin, of the University of California
European health commissioner John Dalli has acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve the transparency of the EU's GMO approval process.
At a debate in the European parliament on Wednesday, Dalli said that biotech companies "needed to continue improving transparency and access to their data".
Stressing the need for a science-based approach, he insisted that the EU had the "world's strictest system of authorising GMOs".
"Efforts must be made to improve transparency and dialogue by all of us," he added.
Dalli spoke of the need to balance business innovation with consumersafety, and called for "a robust system of authorisation that can putthe minds of most of us at peace".
Concerns over a perceived lack of independence within the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU agency responsible for carrying out the risk assessment of new GM products, have been a factor in the long-running deadlock over biotech crop approvals in Europe.
The discussion, organised by parliament's ALDE group, brought independent scientists and EFSA officials together to discuss this issue and the risk evaluation process in the EU.
'Conflict of interest'
The Maltese commissioner's comments came as French Liberal MEP Corinne Lepage, called for an end to what she called the "cancer" of conflicts of interest.
France, alongside Germany and several other EU member states havecriticised the commission's opt out plans, which would essentiallyallow EU member states to decide whether to allow GM crop cultivation.
And Lepage, a former French environment minister and parliament's rapporteur on the European commission's proposals to introduce a national opt-out clause for GMO cultivation, said managing conflicts of interest was "an extremely important issue".
"Quite often the links between experts and private interests are a growing concern and the reform of this has become something of great import," said Lepage.
An avowed GM sceptic, she added, "We need to rely on expertise that we are entirely confident in. This cancer of conflict of interest must be stopped."
However, fellow ALDE deputy George Lyon said, "It's vital for farmers and consumers that the current impasse on cultivation sees progress.
"It's not for us as politicians to decide on the science. Decisions on food safety must be based on scientific evidence.
"We cannot keep stalling while the rest of the world is using the new technology, not only to benefit farmers but also the environment."
Angelika Hilbeck, president of the European network of scientists for social and environmental responsibility, called for more clarity in the new EFSA guidelines on evaluating the health and environmental risks of GMOs.
In a "critical appraisal" of the EFSA guidelines, she said new environmental risk assessment regulations were "certainly for the greater good of the European people".
However, she warned that the guidance was "non coherent" in part, and said that while scientific progress had been made on some sections, other parts were narrow in scope.
Setting out the American approval process, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, of the University of California, said, "As tough as the US system is, EFSA's is tougher. Your interests and the environment's interests are completely protected."
However, Gilles-Eric Séralini, the president of the scientific council of the committee of independent research and information on genetic engineering at Caen University was among the panellists calling wanted to see more traceability and transparency on the issue.
Questioning whether low life-expectancy in the US could be "due to GMOs", he claimed that EFSA was failing to fully take the effects of products into account.
He said that Europe was "crucially lacking" independent research, and called for EFSA to be given money to carry out tests independently of private companies.
Karine Lheureux, a senior scientific officer at EFSA's GMO unit, said the 21 experts on the authority's GMO panel provide independent scientific advice, working on a case-by-case basis and taking a comparative approach.
Fellow EFSA scientist Claudia Paoletti said the authority looks "for intended and unintended effects" when making assessments.
"We need to assess the GMO in relation to its intended use and in light of the evaluation of all available scientific evidence," she said.