Why does Europe hate GM food and is it about change?

Why does Europe hate GM food and is it about change?

8th July 2014, Comments 15 comments

While the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and China and many other countries have warmly embraced genetically modified crops, Europe remains the world's big holdout.

Could this be about to change? New European Union rules now seek to clear up years of internal deadlock that could, in theory, lead to widespread cultivation of GM foods. But the fight is far from over.

The EU's great GM debate pits two powerful forces against each other: green campaigners concerned about the effect of the crops on health and the environment, and the agri-business lobby, which argues that Europe, by resisting a technology that boosts yields and rural incomes, is losing its place at the forefront of agricultural innovation.

Only five EU countries grow GM crops at all –Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia – and in such tiny quantities that they accounted for less than 0.1 percent of global GM cultivation last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which monitors the industry.

Europe's fragmented politics, diverse landscapes and smaller scale farming traditions have made it less compatible with the mass-farming techniques in the Americas and China.

Only one type of modified crop – a pest-resistant maize – is approved for cultivation in the EU, compared to 96 commercial licences granted in the United States since 1990, although Europe does import more than 30 million tonnes of GM grain for animal feed each year.

"Europe has perversely condemned itself to importing crops which its farmers could grow locally and banished thousands of bright scientists to other shores for reasons that are scientifically bogus," claims Brandon Mitchener, a Brussels spokesman for Monsanto, one of the US agribusinesses leading the push for GM crops.

Hoping to find a way out of the deadlock, EU environment ministers last month approved new rules that would permit individual countries to make their own decisions on GM – allowing them to use 'ethical' or 'public order' rationales to ban crops even when scientific advisors have ruled that these strains are safe.

The compromise was the result of a fraught battle, says Frederic Vincent, health spokesman for the European Commission: "Everyone was blocking the agreement for different reasons. The UK said not enough was left to science, France said too much was left to science, Germany was a mix of both thanks to its complex coalition."

Mad cow impact

Genetic modification technology was not always so controversial in Europe.

Even France, now one of its staunchest opponents, grew GM maize well into the 2000s until green protesters pressured the government into a ban.

But Mitchener says the seeds of Europe's aversion to GM were sown in the 1990s, thanks to two factors in particular: the strength of the Green party in Germany at the crucial moment when the technology was first emerging, and then the scare over mad cow disease in Britain.

"Mad cow disease caused a loss of public confidence in science. You had the British government saying beef was safe, while the EU said the opposite," he says.

Unlike the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which commands widespread respect in the United States, equivalent bodies in Europe are often treated as pawns of industry or simply ignored, Mitchener adds.

"The tragedy of biotech in Europe is that no one listens to EFSA," he says, referring to the European Food Safety Authority, a scientific body set up partly in reaction to the mad cow disease confusion.

It has consistently stated there is no risk from GM crops.

Pro-GM scientists argue GM is not inherently more dangerous to either the environment or human health than any other method of crop mutation – whether through selective breeding or naturally through evolution.

Or, for that matter, by blasting seeds with radiation, as humans have been doing for decades through the process of 'mutagenesis', hoping to create mutant seeds with useful properties.

More than 2,500 crops have been created in this way, including a premium barley used in Scotch whisky and disease-resistant cocoa in Guinean chocolate.

"In fact, GM is actually safer than most forms of breeding because we know exactly which properties are being implanted – it's much less random," argues Huw Jones, a GM scientist at Rothamsted Research in the UK.

Science consensus 'myth'

But Greenpeace, one of the most vocal opponents, dismisses the idea of a scientific consensus on GM safety as "a myth".

It argues that continued gaps in knowledge about gene manipulation should raise alarm bells, especially as the technology moves beyond single-gene transfers and into more complex experiments.

It also portrays GM technology as a symbol of all that is wrong with modern mass-farming techniques.

"GM crops are presented as a solution, but they are part of the problem. They are a product of a wider agricultural system that is destroying our environment. They lead to more uniformity and even greater economies of scale, when what we need is greater diversity," says Marco Contiero, EU agricultural policy director for Greenpeace.

That ties in with familiar concerns about the way GM crops are commercialised. It costs the big agrochemical firms such as Monsanto or Bayer around USD 200 million (EUR 140 million) to develop the simplest GM seed, Greenpeace says, and that gets recouped through aggressive marketing and monopoly ownership of seeds that have made Monsanto in particular the bête noire of the green movement.

All this means that the newly minted EU deal – due to go before the European Parliament and Council by the end of the year – still faces major obstacles.

Environmentalists such as Jose Bove, a French Green MEP who went on hunger strike in 2008 to force France's first GM ban, complain the agreement will give gives biotech firm a direct role in lobbying governments, threatens single market principles and does nothing to protect cross-border contamination from GM seeds planted in neighbouring countries.

With the EU still poring over the results of May Euro-elections, it is unclear how the looming political battle will pan out.

Even if the GM directive passes, will national governments court the ire of environmental campaigners by permitting large-scale GM cultivation?

"We're creating organisms that haven't been created in the whole of history," says Contiero. "We are not opposed to GM in principle, but this technology is only 20 years old. For that reason, we need to be absolutely cautious."


Eric Randolph / AFP / Expatica

15 Comments To This Article

  • carrico posted:

    on 11th July 2014, 13:27:06 - Reply

    @aisling: Got it. Thanks. Interesting in view of the fact that multinational corporations are also a relatively recent economic/political invention. Money talks...walks. This controversy also divides my home state. The World Cup goes on and on, nicht wahr?
  • aisling posted:

    on 10th July 2014, 15:22:56 - Reply

    @carrico: I think that the last line of the article is probably the one which is most relevant - that we need to be really cautious as there is much reserach to be done yet. The issue is only debatable if it each side has at their disposal fully completed research, and it would also be in the interests not to have one side represented by one of the biggest corporate lobbies in the US...
  • François posted:

    on 10th July 2014, 15:10:51 - Reply

    Was this article actually sponsored by Monsanto??? I wonder!
  • carrico posted:

    on 10th July 2014, 03:45:48 - Reply

    Will somebody, please,explain this: "Don't cry for me, Argentina."
    Dank je wel.
  • nick posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 14:49:10 - Reply

    "Russia will not import GMO products, the country’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said, adding that the nation has enough space and resources to produce organic food." - from RT (Russia Today) news website.
    "This is interesting: when Westerners in Russia ask where to buy organic produce, locals usually just look at them uncomprehendingly: here it is, all around you – and they do a sweeping gesture of the entire farmer’s market. The thing is, all food grown in Russia is natural. They don’t need to label it organic… because it simply is." - from Lada Ray website
  • GRH posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 14:08:18 - Reply

    The FDA is not treated as a pawn of industry because it is the industry. Make no mistake the earth can support everyone with normal crops. But there is no money in that and it would not fit in with Agenda 21 or the NWO of things. Never forget that you ARE what you eat, your body rebuilds itself from what you feed it. We are fools enough without adding more reasons to be foolish to our diet.
  • carrico posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:48:43 - Reply

    Jesus--everybody's cookin' today. Ain't got somethin' to do with the game, does it?
  • nick posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:42:07 - Reply

    "Russian President Vladimir #Putin announced that Russia will criminalize #Monsanto and any other bio-tech companies who attempt to plant, or lie/conceal that they have planted #GMO seeds on Russian territory. Lying, or concealing GMO-related activity, as well as mislabelling GMO products, will bear jail sentence and will be equated to terrorism." - from the Lada Ray website.
    "In February, the State Duma introduced a bill banning the cultivation of GMO food products. President Putin ordered that Russian citizens be protected from GMOs. The States Agricultural Committee has supported the ban recommendation from the Russian parliament, and the resolution will come into full effect in July 2014." - from the collective-evolution website.
  • Bill posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:38:06 - Reply

    I forgot to mention that there are some areas where genetic modification could be very helpful. Finding some way of saving the European Elm, Larch and Chestnut trees from the diseases/insect infestations suffered (as a result of imported pests) in the last couple of decades would be great. I guess it's not profitable enough for Monsanto to deal with it.. Varoa resistent bees anyone?

    I am not against GMOs in principle. I am against the monopolization of critical parts of humanity's food supply. Diversity is the key to survival, not Monsanto monoculture!
  • Bill posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:26:02 - Reply

    Putting aside the economic, societal and health arguments I think many Europeans are wary GMO crops for cultural reasons. Some European countries have ancient and world-renowned culinary traditions (Italy and France come to mind) that would suffer in the corn and soybean monoculture of the USA diet. Furthermore, there are many ancient agricultural traditions (e.g. wine, alpine grazing, small producers of meat and vegetable products) that people want to see preserved. (These artiginal products are often highly sought-after overseas; e.g. parmeggiano reggiano, prosciutto San Daniele or Chateau Lafite anyone?) These brands (and European agriculture in general) would be significantly damaged if ever came out that they derived extensively from Monsanto meddling.

    I also think that the extensive system of agricultural subsidies should be abolished in Europe as well as the USA. This would go a long way to leveling the playing field for those who don't want to get stuck in the unhealthy soybean/maize/wheat cycle..but that is a discussion for another day.
  • Geoff Naylor posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:14:53 - Reply

    The effects of GM produced food is far too unpredictable. No big surprise that a man from Monsanto - a company that could benefit (and profit) hugely from the development of GM crops - tries to dismiss rightful concerns voiced in Europe.
    Keep up the good work Greenpeace and the other Green activists.
  • carrico posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:11:17 - Reply

    Aisling: Don't know which is more insightful, the article or your response. But you agree that the issue continues to be moot?
  • Cobie posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 13:11:01 - Reply

    In Canada where genetically modified foods are allowed by the government, the people are very displeased and wish desperately that the GMO crops would not be allowed. Monsanto misleads both businesses and individuals when they suggest that there is no risk involved. Obviously Monsanto would sustain a huge loss if Canada or other countries stopped growing GMO foods. In Canada, Monsanto has a very bad reputation and is not trusted by anybody who's done any kind of research on them. Europe is on the right track and would be wise to stay the direction that they're going.
  • aisling posted:

    on 9th July 2014, 10:06:30 - Reply

    GMO prodcution in the US has completely altered the way in which crops are produced and has had wide reaching effects, from destroying the livelihood of the small farmer to studies revealing the decimated bee populations as a result of chemicals used on GMO crops, to devestation of biodiversity. These are not imagined issues promoted by the environment groups for their own purpose - there are studies demonstrating the effects of GMO crops.
    The longer we can keep GMO crops from having the same impact in the EU as it has had in the US the better.
    It's unsurprising that the person interviewed for this article with a pro-GMO outlook is a representative of Monsanto - one of the organisations with the most to gain from GMO spreading across the world. We're watching the evolution of BIG FARM, trying to get a grip on the EU the same way it has done in the US. Protect our small producers. No to GMO
  • Jimmy Beam posted:

    on 8th July 2014, 18:08:52 - Reply

    It is the correct decision to not allow GM food, its just too risky. Ask any geneticist.