Dear American anti-GMO activists: no, the EU does not ban GMOs

by Dan Mitchell

A popular theme among anti-GMO activists is to make the claim that Europe has banned GMOs, as if to imply European scientists know something that American regulators do not.

There are several problems here: First, “Europe” is a continent, not a country.  Inside of Europe are numerous countries with different governments, cultures, and economies. Americans often make erroneous claims that “Europe does X,” and completely ignore the diversity among European peoples and countries.  We’ll give the benefit of the doubt that these activists are referring to the EU, which will largely be the focus of this article.  The EU does attempt to make common economic policies for ease of trade and governance between its member states.

Second, it is important to note that just because several foreign countries do X, does not make X a valid point. Plenty of countries ban marijuana and homosexuality, and I am sure most of our readers would agree that these are poor policies. So argumentum ad populum is a fallacious argument that we should avoid. There is a third problem here – the EU does not actually ban GMOs and the EU scientific community is thoroughly behind the technology.

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European Corn Borer

According to the EU register of authorised GMOs there are currently ten GM cottons, thirty GM maizes, four GM rapeseeds, twelve GM soybeans, one GM sugar beet, one GM bacterial biomass, and one GM yeast biomass authorized in the EU for importation and use in food and feed. In the interest of intellectual honesty, it should be noted that only one of these, MON 810, a Bt maize that protects itself from the corn borer pest, is authorized for cultivation. MON 810 is grown in Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Portugal, and formerly Germany, but has also been banned for cultivation (but not for importation or use) in Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Greece.This is the sole origin of activists’ claims that Europe bans GMOs. 

That being said, the current climate for GMOs in the EU is a far cry from what activists like to claim. According to the FAO, the EU imports a large amount of agricultural products and the US is a top exporter. So yes, American GM products are authorized for importation and are regularly used in the EU.

So what does the European scientific community say when it comes to GMOs? Well, fortunately quite a bit. In fact, the European Commission (EC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) put together a major overview of EU research into GMOs. From “A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research:”

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.

Now, it would be especially difficult for the activists to state that somehow Monsanto has infiltrated the EU like they claim about the US, especially as they are often so quick to appeal to European science authorities. But if they choose to make this statement we can also look at the national science academies of the various EU states. In fact, we can look at all of them at once: The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) is made up of every single national science academy of the EU, plus a few other non-EU European states. That’s over 28 national science academies, one from each country. That’s nothing to scoff at.  An implication that somehow any single company could somehow influence a board as divers as this would be inconceivable.  And what did they have to say about GMOs?

It is now more than ever possible to judge the impact of GM crops endowed with herbicide tolerance or insect resistance or both. The scientific literature shows no compelling evidence to associate such crops, now cultivated worldwide for more than 15 years, with risks to the environment or with safety hazards for food and animal feed greater than might be expected from conventionally bred varieties of the same crop.
Claims of adverse impacts have often been based on contested science, and some critics have falsely attributed the effects of a specific trait to the means used to introduce it to the plant. Cultivating a GM crop variety with increased herbicide resistance, for example, may prove detrimental to the environment if the farmer over-uses that herbicide. But the same would be true of herbicide resistance introduced by conventional breeding. Any new tool or technology can have unintended and unwanted effects if used unwisely.

Granted, this a few years old (2013, to be exact).  The European Academies Science Advisory Council had this to say in response to growing GM acceptance:

The EU has approved the importation of certain foods of GM crop origin, but not approved the same GM crop for cultivation within the EU. It has an historic and current commitment to investing in plant sciences and promoting a knowledge-based bioeconomy, but neglects to use some of the advances made by research for agricultural innovation. It aims to reduce chemical pesticide use, but over-regulates alternative genetic approaches to crop protection. And the impact of its GM policy and practice is in conflict with EU global development policy.
Rapid changes are taking place in the distribution of power in agriculture worldwide, and the EU has already retreated from some world markets. A greater emphasis on crop genetic improvement technologies may be only part of the solution to this decline, and to the sustainable intensification of agriculture; but to exclude any valid tool, as EU policies risk doing, is unwise.
The European Union has much to do.

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To be clear, the EASAC also includes the national science academies of the EU member states that have banned the cultivation of GMOs. Their bans also stand in contrast to the EC/EFSA findings stated above. So how has this happened? Under the EU regulatory system, member states are allowed to put in temporary bans on GMOs if they are concerned with health or environmental issues which are then reviewed by the EC/EFSA for later status. Interestingly, not a single one of these bans were ever approved by the EC or EFSA:

The safeguard clause was invoked on nine separate occasions under Directive 90/220/EEC during the late 1990s and in 2000, three times by Austria, twice by France, and once each by Germany, Luxembourg, Greece and the United Kingdom. The scientific evidence provided by these Member States as justification for their measures was submitted to the Scientific Committee(s) of the European Union for opinion.
In all of these cases, the Committee(s) deemed that there was no new evidence which would justify overturning the original authorisation decision.
In spite of the repeal of Directive 90/220/EEC, eight of the nine bans remained in place (UK has withdrawn its ban) and were re-notified under the safeguard provision of Directive 2001/18/EC. In view of the new regulatory framework, the Commission has examined the additional information provided by certain Member States which have invoked the safeguard clause and has submitted it to EFSA for evaluation.

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Anne Glover, former Chief Scientific Advisor

These EU member states put in temporary bans on crops that had already received approval by the EC/EFSA and those temporary bans were later not approved, but the member states kept them in place. Despite the findings of the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority, and the European Academies Science Advisory Council these bans still continue. Contrary to the claims of activists, these were put in place for political reasons, not because of science based reasons. Certain politicians have caved into public pressure that has resulted from misinformation being spread by the very same anti-GMO activists who cite Europe as an example of science standing against evil corporations. For a decade the EC was suing member states for illegal bans, but that finally ended in mid-2014 when the EC and member states came to a compromise that allows states to seek restrictions independent of the EC.

Worse yet, the anti-GMO assault on science is so bad that they have even attacked important environmentalist allies. Recently, the latest EC political administration (not to be confused with the EC/EFSA scientists and regulators) has removed the position of Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) under pressure from anti-GMO groups. The former CSA, Dr. Anne Glover, a vocal proponent of addressing climate change issues, came under fire when she stated that opposition to GMOs was “a form of madness.”

“No other foodstuff has been so thoroughly investigated as GM,” she said. “No scientist will ever say something is 100 per cent safe but I am 99.99 per cent certain from the scientific evidence that there are no health issues with food produced from GM crops. Just about every scientist I know supports this view. Opposition to GM, and the benefits it can bring, is a form of madness I don’t understand.”

The anti-GMO outcry was immediate and the call for the removal of the position of CSA came from groups such as Greenpeace. An individual who had spoken out on the issues of climate change, an ally to environmentalists, was criticized by her former allies for not supporting the anti-science dogma on GMOs. This is an example of a larger fight in the environmentalist camp between the old guard ideologues and newer technophiles, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Because she spoke out in favor of a pragmatic approach to GMOs she was attacked and now there is no longer a position of CSA to the European Commission. I am sure that the climate change denialists are equally delighted.

With the end of the position of the CSA and recent compromise over GMO cultivation, the future of GM crops in the EU is uncertain.  And once again, this is not due to a scientific argument but one steeped in fearmongering.  Seeing Greenpeace activists in the U.S. hold up signs about Europeans being anti GMO, when it’s merely their European chapters pressing buttons, feels dishonest. It is unlikely that the importation and use of foreign GM food will be affected, but it will be interesting to see if any other crops are deregulated for cultivation in the immediate future. This may be beneficial as countries that wanted to pursue a more GM-friendly environment may now be able to do so independent of the other member states.

As the rest of the world increases their use of GMO crops, it is important that the EU does not fall behind, especially as certain GM crops allow for lower carbon emissions, less soil erosion, and lower/safer pesticide use. South American countries, China, India, and others are free from the hyper risk-adverse environment that exists in Europe and farmers are increasing their use of GM crops to great benefit. This cyclical wave of fear has far reaching consequences that often play out slowly in politics.  Hopefully, independent EU states will realize the madness of importing everyone else’s GM food while forgoing the economic and environmental benefits of cultivating those crops.  Truthfully it’s hard to gauge just how big the anti GMO outcry is worldwide, but it’s increasingly clear that the same tired, unscientific arguments are being employed in each instance.

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