EU at a GMO Crossroads
EU at a GMO Crossroads

STOCKHOLM—The restrictive stance of the European Union on genetically modified organisms (GMO) has frustrated major corporations and some scientists. But there are signs that European politicians might be slowly opening up concerning policy on genetically modified (GM) animals. A new study also shows that European consumers are not more averse to GMOs than consumers in other parts of the world. 

In May, the European Food Safety Administration (EFSA) released guidelines for assessing health and environmental risks related to GM animals. This was seen by many as a recognition that applications for raising GM animals will be coming soon, and the EU is preparing to at least deal with them. 

Although these guidelines are the culmination of several years of work, their release almost coincided with Monsanto’s declaration that it will stop trying to get its GM crops approved in the European Union (EU). 

Earlier this year, another company that develops GMOs, BASF, terminated trials for a GM potato in Europe. The company cited lack of both consumer enthusiasm and political support. This captures well the image of an EU on the fence about GMOs.

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Related Discussion:Should GMO Products Be Labeled?

Ask a Negative Question, Get a Negative Answer

Meanwhile, Swedish scientists just completed a meta-study (that is, a study of other studies) to get a handle on consumer attitudes toward GMOs and biotechnology in food worldwide. 

It shows no significant differences between consumers in different parts of the world, according to one of the authors, professor Carl-Johan Lagerkvist. The study, titled “Consumers’ Evaluation of Biotechnology in Food Products,” will be presented at the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association’s 2013 AAEA and CAES Joint Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in August. 

“We have found European consumers to be neither more nor less positive to biotechnology [in food] than consumers elsewhere,” Lagerkvist said.

The analysis combines information from 214 studies, including more than 200,000 respondents from 58 geographical regions, and is limited to questions about biotechnology (not only genetic modification) in food. Responses were overall rather balanced between regions, said Lagerkvist.

He mentioned the Eurobarometer (an EU public-opinion survey) as an example of a survey in which the questions about GMO were often framed in a negative way. The questions addressed risks and moral issues, rather than benefits. 

“We have found [in our study] that if you frame your questions in a more negative way, you get a more negative evaluation. When we have compensated for such effects, our findings do not support that European consumers are more negative [to biotechnology in food] than others,” he said.

Differences in European, American Perspectives

So, how does one explain the differences between the EU and the United States in their respective approaches to GMOs? The answer, according to several scientists with whom the Epoch Times has spoken, lies mostly in the agricultural situation in the EU.

Professor Stefan Jansson at the Department of Plant Physiology of Umea University in Sweden explained, “There are some differences in public attitudes, but lobbying, agricultural subsidies, and protectionism is what is feeding all of this.” Professor Sten Stymne at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences echoed and further developed this view. 

“We must remember that European agriculture is heavily subsidized and protected,” he said. He gave the example of French wine farmers: France wants to keep its lovely vineyards, so it subsidizes an overproduction of wine. Much of the surplus is used for distilling ethanol, which is then used to fuel cars. The European Commission makes up the difference. 

“There is no incentive to bring in GMOs [into the EU],” Stymne said. “Quite the opposite: If they were indeed brought in, that would mean taking a step toward actually competing on the world market.”

Politicians in many major EU countries are heavily influenced by the agricultural lobbyists, and this is one of the main reasons for the current state of affairs, Stymne said. Resistance also comes from the organic farming movement, environmentalists, and others. But these are global movements, equally active in the EU, the United States, and elsewhere.

Ed Davitt, communications officer of Greenpeace EU cited similar reasons for the difference between the EU’s GMO situation and that in the United States, but he also emphasized that GM technology took hold in the United states earlier on, and that U.S. agriculture tends to be larger in scale, more centralized, and more energy-intensive. 

He said the European public also generally has a greater awareness of food issues.

In Defense of GMO Regulation

Davitt defended the EU regulations, both from a democratic and from a scientific point of view.

“The rules the EU has put in place have largely been due to the democratic decision-making processes in the European Parliament and Council, as is their right,” he said. “The European Commission proposes policy on agriculture and environmental health issues on the principle of the latest available scientific advice.”

“EU restrictions, such as the recent ban on bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides is not some emotional act of will—it follows scientific examination and political discussion,” Davitt said. 

So where is the EU headed? Both Jansson and Stymne believe that the EU will inevitably move toward a greater acceptance of GMO products. Yet the professors said the rate of change is slow.

Opening EU to GMO

“Each year, the EU is finding itself in an even more difficult position,” said Stefan Jansson. “As third-world countries are developing their own GMO crops, the main argument of the Europeans—that this is a technology only demanded by, and only serving, the major corporations—is crumbling. Europe is still doing its utmost to not take heed of this development, and its policy is still to slow it down in Africa, for instance. But this is untenable in the long run.”

Mariette Andersson, a scientist who works for the Swedish state-sponsored Mistra Biotech project, said any move toward more liberal GMO policies in the EU will not be quick or easy.

“Things are moving very slowly right now,” she said. “In my opinion, the EU is losing out on many products with great environmental potential. … Many of them would contribute to a sustainable society.”

Greenpeace has a different view. Davitt said Greenpeace opposes “the patenting of life” while supporting “other biotechnologies that do not involve this commercialization of plant- and animal-life DNA.”

“It seems more likely that we will be able to move forward with real efficient and productive technologies that help us to move further away from chemically intensive agriculture,” he said.

A Market for GMO?

Davitt said the economic demand does not exist in Europe for GMOs and the environmental concerns will outweigh the benefits. 

“Monsanto’s recent indication that it has decided to stop pushing GMO technologies where they are not wanted is indicative of the political and consumer resistance to these products,” he said. 

Andersson noted that the currently perceived resistance doesn’t prevent many GMO products from entering the EU market: “Unfortunately, I can’t say where the EU is going, but we are already using genetically modified feed [for livestock] and textiles, such as cotton, which we import from other countries, so we are not completely GMO-free in the EU.”

RELATED: Monsanto Lawsuit: Wash. Farmers Sue Over GMO Wheat

  • jamessavik

    Try feeding 7 billion people without genetically modified crops. It’s not going to work.

    • CamB

      You’re delusional if that’s truly what you believe!

      • jamessavik

        The worlds population just ticked over 7 billion people and isn’t slowing. It is a matter of arable lands, yield per acre, loss per acre and processing loss.

        Then you add in non-supply chain effects like national taxes, corruption and war. The sad truth is that there are people for purely political reasons that we couldn’t feed if we wanted to.

        If you look at the formula, statistics and reality of the situation, you’ll see an intractable truth: the only way to catch up with the demand for food is to increase the yield per acre. The only way to do that is to pick crops with the expectation of the proper yield.

        There’s a big difference between the truth and the propaganda of enviroMENTAL conspiracy nuts. As the world population grows, the more and more difficult it will become to reconcile the food supply with the world demand. It’s an ugly truth but there it is.

        • gdbear65

          GMO crops have a lower yield per acre than traditionally bred crops. There is no disputing that – it is well documented. Nor are they less thirsty and Bt crops actually require more pesticides than conventional crops. Don’t buy into the propaganda – the objective of GMO corporations is to control the food supply. Whomever controls the food supply controls the world. Monsanto and others have been actively buying as many seed banks as possible to support their deceitful intentions. Furthermore GMO crops and animals are a nightmare as they don’t fully understand protein expression – they operate under the false assumption that each gene only produces 1 protein when in fact a gene can express multiple proteins as demonstrated in the human genome – there are 20,000 genes and over 100,000 proteins in the human body. If the 1:1 genetic protein expression were true, then they’re missing over 80,000 genes from the genome.

        • TheBoss Dedoman

          the corporations supplying GMO foods are not in it to worry about feeding the people.. it is clearly about profit. Their foods are not more affordable and they have been around for decades… they have done nothing to change hunger in the desperate starving countries.. oh that’s right.. there is no money in it for them..
          Not to mention the small little fact that they do not label foods in certain countries (GMO).. if these GMO products are so wonderful.. why not label so the people know what they are/have been consuming. At least this way, people would have known sooner where the health risks/issues were coming from.

    • TheBoss Dedoman

      wow.. never knew there was 7billion people in Europe going hungry. There seem to be other ways of becoming self sufficient then eating garbage food aka GMO food

  • Pizza

    The GMO crops in the USA are like plants with a bad case of AIDS, they have no immune system and it’s a time bomb. When I lived in the USA, after a few years my thyroid gland slowed, I got wheat allergy that gave me stomach pains and diarrhea , my arms and hands were falling asleep, I had ringing in my ears and my urine killed plants because I had so much glyphosate in it, that is the stuff sprayed on Round Up Ready GMO plants. And the doctor said I had high blood sugar and would get diabetes. When I left the USA and returned to Europe, eating normal food again, all of these health issues went away. I can eat as much wheat as I want, pizza and pasta again. No blood sugar is normal, my hands don’t fall asleep. My urine is not clear and killing plants. I am much healthier. Health care begins with healthy food, I don’t know how the USA will survive with all this unhealthy food they are creating to make money.

  • M. Hughes

    The Oregon wheat crop tainted with GMO deliberately, and then shelved 10
    years ago, got out somehow. Now, who knows how much of it was spread
    unintentionally, but Monsanto, I’ll bet will prosecute the new,
    unsuspecting owners to the fullest of the law. Why would Europe allow
    that mega-crazy company go for all of their crops, also. Mega-monopolies
    are no good, AT ALL, imho.

  • Ben Coverley

    Don’t confuse feeding the world with controlling the food supply.

  • TheBoss Dedoman

    i linked here from a comment that was so ridiculous.. I just had to click it.. ”should Europe open up to GMO’s” … that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen .. they may of well just placed the title of the link ”should Europe eat cancer causing foods and try to kill themselves and their children slowly?” .. oooo ya.. that’s a tough one! hmmm decisions decisions.. pssshhh

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