Regularly in the headlines, the “issue” of genetically modified organisms (GMO) arouses controversy and concerns both amongst the general public and the experts. The first text of the Convention alluded to it, allowing the States a high level of freedom to interpret the principle of participation regarding this subject. Since then, a “GMO amendment” was introduced into the Convention in May 2005, during the Second Meeting of the Parties.
Taking the form of a new article (Art. 6 bis), this amendment lays down the principle of public participation during the authorisation for deliberate release of genetically modified organisms and during their arrival on the market.

N.B. This amendment has yet to be ratified before it can enter into force. However, Belgian legislation already complies with it through the Royal Decree dated 21 February 2005 which, among other matters, specifies the notion of deliberate release (see links at the end of the page).

The release of GMOs under the watchful eye of the public

The GMO amendment was designed to reinforce public rights. It clarifies the scope of the second pillar of the Aarhus Convention (public participation in the decision-making process) regarding this issue. In concrete terms, it imposes an obligation on the authorities to seek the public’s opinion before authorising an open field trial or the marketing of a GMO.

The three pillars at work

Tackled in a specific way by the “participation” pillar, the GMO issue, like all other environmental matters, also falls under the remit of the other pillars. Thus, the rules relating to public access to environmental information are already in application for GMOs as well as those relating to access to justice. The emphasis put on GMOs within the framework of the “participation” pillar aims to allow the public to express itself on the development of company activities in this domain.

Release or confined use: what’s the difference?

The GMO amendment refers to deliberate release without, however, specifying the sense of this notion. What is it about? How should it be defined? It is necessary to refer to European (Directive 2001/18/CE) and Belgian (Royal Decree of 21 February 2005) legislation as regards Belgium.

In Belgium, deliberate release concerns:

  • the release of GMOs for experimental purposes (field trials or pharmaceutical trials);
  • placing GMOs on the market (import of seeds, processing, animal feed, cultivation on EU soil) as products or as parts of products.

The confined use of GMOs, i.e. in laboratory tests, does not fall under the remit of the amendment.

Are there exceptions to the application of public participation?

A public authority may decide not to organise public participation if, within the scope of a request for an open field trial:

  • such a release under comparable biogeographic conditions has already been approved by this authority;
  • sufficient experience has previously been gained in comparable ecosystems.

It may also decide not to organise such participation if, within the scope of a request to place a product on the market:

  • this marketing has already been approved by the party concerned;
  • it is intended for research or for culture collections.

What are the rules for public participation?

A legislative framework sets the rules for public participation and provides minimum procedural guarantees. Therefore, the public should be able to participate within a reasonable time limit to give it time to express its opinion. This is based on the assumption that the public authority has correctly informed the public in advance about the participation process and its content.

  • What information should be distributed on the content of the authorisation request?

The public authority must establish a summary of the authorisation request for the deliberate release into the environment or the placing on the market of a GMO. The following information should always be divulged:

  • the general description of the GMO concerned, the name and address of the applicant, the intended uses and the location of the release;
  • the methods and plans for monitoring the GMO concerned as well as the methods and plans for an emergency response;
  • the environmental risk assessment.
  • What information should be provided on the participation process?

The public authority must correctly inform the public about the elements in the file that may help it in its participation. The answers to the following questions must be given to the public:

  • what type of decision will be adopted?
  • who will make the final decision?
  • how is the public participation procedure organised?
  • who should the public address if it has questions about the participation process?
  • to whom should it forward its observations and by when?

Although it is not an obligation, the public authority is asked to take into consideration the results of the participation process before making its final decision. Once the latter has been adopted, the public authority must ensure that it is made public and must also do so for the underlying reason.

For more information: