A recent ruling by the EU Court of Justice describing as wrong Italy’s decision to ban approved genetically modified maize vindicates Ghana’s policy position on the technology.
That is the opinion of the former Director General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Prof. Walter Alhassan.
“It puts to rest some of the misunderstandings about GM technologies. For me, it takes away some of the political reasons for not growing GMO,” he said.
Despite the EU’s approval for the use of the GMO maize in 1998, the Italian government requested that it be banned in 2013 claiming two national scientific studies questioned its safety.
The EU rejected the request on the basis that Italy had failed to show its cultivation posed a serious risk to public health or the environment.
But the Italian government went ahead to ban their cultivation in 2014 and prosecuted a number of farmers who continued to grow it.
The prosecution was challenged in court and the European Union Court of Justice ruled in September that unless there is significant evidence that GMOs pose a serious risk to humans, animals and the environment, member states cannot adopt emergency measures to prohibit their use.
“It means there is no country in Europe which can now stop the growing of GM crops based on the precautionary principle which says even if you don’t have enough scientific evidence to say the thing it unsafe, it’s enough reason to put it away.
"Now you have to produce enough scientific evidence that the thing is unsafe before banning… not based on emotion,” Prof. Alhassan said.
According to him, this also dispels claims that the use of GMO crops is prohibited in Europe. “So that supposed ban that EU countries cannot grow GM crops is virtually lifted by this ruling,” he added.
Ghana is currently undertaking trials that will allow for the commercialization of GMO cowpea in the country. Despite opposition by civil society groups, the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, as well as the CSIR have insisted there is nothing harmful about GMOs.
For Prof. Alhassan, the ruling is evidence that the low popularity of GMOs in Europe compared to America where the majority of foods are GMOs, have nothing to do with the safety of the technology.
“All along, we have always said the conditions in Europe are not the same as in Africa. If they feel they have enough money to import food, that is up to them. But we are faced with challenges. And so we cannot put it aside,” he noted.
The European Commission in a statement following the ruling cautioned member countries against banning the technology based on fear of the unknown.
In 1998, the European Commission authorised the placing on the market of genetically modified maize MON 810. In its decision, the Commission referred to the opinion of the Scientific Committee which stated that there was no reason to believe that that product would have any adverse effects on human health or the environment.
In 2013, the Italian Government asked the Commission to adopt emergency measures to prohibit the cultivation of maize MON 810 in the light of some new scientific studies carried out by two Italian research institutes. On the basis of a scientific opinion issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Commission concluded that there was no new science-based evidence to support the requested emergency measures and to invalidate its previous conclusions about the safety of maize MON 810.
Despite this, in 2013 the Italian Government adopted a ministerial decree prohibiting the cultivation of MON 810 in Italian territory. In 2014, a farmer, Mr. Giorgio Fidenato and others cultivated maize MON 810 in breach of the ministerial decree, for which they were prosecuted.
In the context of criminal proceedings brought against those persons, the Tribunale di Udine (District Court, Udine, Italy) asked the Court of Justice, in particular, whether emergency measures may, in relation to food, be taken on the basis of the precautionary principle. In accordance with the precautionary principle, Member States may adopt emergency measures in order to avert risks to human health that have not yet been fully identified or understood because of scientific uncertainty.
By its judgment delivered today, the Court points out, first of all, that both EU food law 2 and EU legislation on genetically modified food and feed 3 seek to ensure a high level of protection of human health and consumers’ interest, whilst ensuring the effective functioning of the internal market, of which the free movement of safe and wholesome food and feed is an essential aspect.
In that context, the Court finds that, where it is not evident that genetically modified products are likely to constitute a serious risk to human health, animal health or the environment, neither the Commission nor the Member States have the option of adopting emergency measures such as the prohibition on the cultivation of maize MON 810.
The Court emphasises that the precautionary principle, which presupposes scientific uncertainty as regards the existence of a particular risk, is not sufficient for the adoption of such measures. Although that principle may justify the adoption of provisional risk management measures in the area of food in general, it does not allow for the provisions laid down in relation to genetically modified foods to be disregarded or modified, in particular by relaxing them, since those foods have already gone through a full scientific assessment before being placed on the market.
Moreover, the Court finds that a Member State may, where it has officially informed the Commission of the need to resort to emergency measures and where the Commission has not acted, adopt such measures at the national level. Furthermore, it may maintain or renew those measures, so long as the Commission has not adopted a decision requiring their extension, amendment or abrogation. In those circumstances, the national courts have jurisdiction to assess the lawfulness of the measures concerned.