GM, genetically modified technology (GM), continues to perform badly in terms of public opinion when compared to other technologies. This is according to Dr Niall Gerlitz, head of sector for control policy and horizontal issues in biotechnology at the European Commission, who was speaking at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) GM think-in this afternoon.

Speaking on the legal framework surrounding GM technology at today’s conference, Gerlitz stressed that public opinion of GM technologies is “very poor when it comes to food”.

In his speech Gerlitz pointed out that legislation in this area comes under the control of the European Commission’s director-general for health and consumers. He said there were 1,000 staff employed in this area noting that GM research had become a huge area of activity.

The unit in which Dr Gerlitz works is the unit for biotechnology. This section has a number of roles including the development policy, the implementation current framework legislation and addressing the many challenges presented by recent reports on EU GM legislation.

The final key element of the unit is “to ensure that trade with Europe’s main trading partners continues”. Gertlitz stressed that this is important as the EU imports 40 million tonnes of cereals. He noted that “the EU has a series deficit in agricultural protein” and imports 35 million tonnes of soya. Large proportions of these imports are GM products, he said.

To import GM products into the EU each product must be authorised under the relevant EU legislation, Gerlitz noted. Consumer information is also important and all authorised GM products in both food for human consumption and animal feed must be labelled, he said.

According to Gerlitz, if GMO is present above “0.9 per cent in a product it must be labelled”. He also noted that the EU has a “zero per cent tolerance when it comes to unauthorised GM products”.

In his speech regarding EU policy on the regulation of GM technology, Gerlitz outlined that the legislation has “three key elements”.

He explained that applicants attempting to have a GM product authorised must prepare a data set containing all information regarding the scientific performance of the product. A risk assessment is then carried out by the authorities and finally there is a risk management decision by Commission.  The risk-management decision is made by a committee, which comprises of members from all of the EU’s member states.

Currently 50 GMO products are authorised by the EU. These are mostly in maize but also in potatoes, cotton, soya and sugar beet, he said.

Gerlitz went on to say “there are also two GMOs authorised for cultivation within the EU”, which are an insect-resistant maize variety and a high-concentration starch potato.

In addition Gerlitz also cited the important role that the European Court of Justice plays in decisions surrounding GM products.

He illustrated this be citing a high-profile case of GM pollen in honey saying that it might result in “honey being labelled ‘containing pollen’”. Gerlitz noted that this area can be very complex. “Whilst decisions might look black and white there often much more difficult” and it can take years to arrive at a decision.

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By Ciaran Moran