The sale of GMOs and products derived from them, as well as the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment (i.e., the use of GMOs in an open area) are regulated by the EU (directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment, and regulation 1829/2003 on genetically modified foodstuffs and animal feed).
Companies wishing to sell GMOs or products made from them must first obtain a permit. The decision to grant such a permit is taken at the European level after a scientific risk assessment is conducted, and requires the approval of all member states.
For transparency’s sake, any deliberate release of GMOs by member states must be made public, and the Commission has established a system to facilitate the exchange of information among member state officials and the Commission. Member states are consequently informed of all new notifications issued in Europe and all final decisions.
GMO assessment system in France
In France, the “Haut Conseil des Biotechnologies” (HCB) is tasked with providing information to the government on all issues relating to GMOs and biotechnology, formulating opinions on risks to environment and public health, providing biological oversight, and assessing socioeconomic impacts.
The HCB consists of two independent complementary committees:
- The Scientific Committee (CS) analyzes the impact of biotechnologies on the environment and public health. It comprises a maximum of 40 appointed members, most of whom are biologists. Some of its members also specialize in legal, economic and sociological issues.
- The Economic, Ethical and Social Committee (CEES) analyses sociological and ethical impacts. It comprises 27 members appointed in 2009 to a five-year term. As a multidisciplinary body, it consists of elected officials, representatives of professional organizations, employees, environmental protection associations, consumer organizations and other appropriate figures.
The HCB’s opinions and recommendations to the government are made public.
The HCB recently published opinions on the labeling of foodstuffs “without GMOs” by approved distributors (Feb. 1, 2011) and on the coexistence of GMO and non-GMO cultivation (Dec. 15, 2011).
Showcasing innovative research
France’s two major public agricultural research institutes, the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) and the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) focus on GMOs known as “public assets”—those relating to the collective interest or responding to crucial challenges to agriculture, food or the environment.
INRA notably works on plant-related innovations: improving plants (improving drought resistance, for example) or mobilizing urgent genomic characteristics to confront the emergence of grievous health-related disasters in certain crops such as wheat.
In addition, as part of the national program to support innovation/invest in the future, eight projects relating to biotechnology and bioresources that foster understanding of the life sciences and showcase renewable biological resources will receive some 54.5 million euros in government support. They include a project aimed at creating a more adaptable beet variety with higher sugar yields, and a project to improve rapeseed yields while limiting nitrogen inputs during the production cycle.
Marketing GMO-based products
European regulations mandate the obligatory labeling of products deliberately containing GMOs. Labels must state: “This product contains genetically modified organisms.” Labeling is obligatory for all GMOs and GMO-based products to be used in the food industry (starches, oils, flours, etc.). Should they be present accidentally, labeling is required only when the GMO rate exceeds 0.9%.
In France, the rules on labeling products without GMOs have just been defined. As of July 1, 2012:
- Plant-based products (for example, flour, starch and lecithin) can be labeled “without GMOs” if they are made from raw materials whose GMO content is no more than 0.1%.
- The labeling of animal-based ingredients (for example, milk, meat, fish and eggs) will specify “fed without GMOs (<0.1%)” or “fed without GMOs (<0.9%).”
- Bee products (for example, honey and pollen) could be labeled “without GMOs within a radius of 3 km.”These statements will most often appear in the list of ingredients or, when the ingredient highlighted represents more than 95% of the foodstuff, in the main visual field of the packaging.
Coexistence of GMO and non-GMO crops
The 2008 law on GMOs allows production with or without the use of GMOs. It provides regulatory provisions that must be followed by farmers wishing to cultivate GMOs so that their neighbors remain free to make their own choices.
A draft decree establishing rules for coexistence is being published and was sent to the European Commission. It notably establishes that a corn producer growing GMOs must create a 50-meter buffer between his field and the neighboring field. This distance can be adjusted if physical obstacles exist (hedges,etc.).
Growing MON810 corn remains prohibited in France. The government considers that it does not present all the necessary environmental guarantees. However, the government is not opposed to GMOs on principle. The 2008 law does not prohibit the cultivation of GMOs but subjects it to certain conditions, and the implementing texts are in the process of being published.
The government has also asked for a stepped-up assessment of GMOs at the European level. If the scientific conditions can be guaranteed, GMOs can be authorized in France.