The lowdown: The European Union has approved the cultivation of one GMO and importation of many (with more on the horizon). The European Commission and European Academies Science Advisory Council, like other government and scientific associations around the world, supports the evidence-based conclusion that GMOs currently on the market are not any less safe than their conventionally bred counterparts. Nonetheless, certain member states within the EU have elected to ban cultivation of EU-approved GMOs on political/cultural grounds.
The details: Headlines claiming that GMOs are banned in Europe abound. These are often accompanied by an assertion that the United States should follow suit. Does the EU know something the US does not? Where are these claims coming from?
In response to the question “why are GMOs banned in other countries,” Dr. Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, clarified:
Very few countries explicitly ‘ban’ GMOs. In most cases, governments have simply not yet ‘approved’ various GMO crops for cultivation, or for import, or for human consumption. The presumption that each separate GMO should require case-by-case and use-by-use approval, by national government regulatory committees, has greatly slowed down the uptake of the technology. In effect, GMO foods and crops are being regulated as strictly as medical drugs, even though there is no evidence that they carry more risks than conventional foods and crops (in the official opinion of the EU Research Directorate, for example). Critics of GMO crops have promoted highly precautionary regulatory systems as one way to slow down the spread of the technology, and in large parts of the developing world governments have not yet given any cultivation approvals at all
As has been previously noted, Europe is not a unified country, but a continent made up of separate countries, many of which participate as member states in the coalitional European Union. The EU as a whole has established directives regarding the import and cultivation of GMOs, and, like the US, requires pre-market safety testing and post-market environmental monitoring of GMOs. The EU has only authorized one crop for cultivation, pest-resistant Bt corn (Mon-810), however 58 GMOs have been approved for import as food and feed, and 58 more are awaiting regulatory approval. 17 of these have received a positive European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessment, and one is inconclusive. Applications for cultivation of 8 additional GMOs (including one renewal of Mon-810) are pending, and 4 have received a positive EFSA opinion. Furthermore, the EU relies heavily on external sources for soymeal, and imports more than 60% of plant protein needs. 90% of these imports originate from countries where GE soybeans cover 90% of total soybean acreage.
Within the EU, member states can choose to ban the cultivation of GMOs that have been approved by the European Commission. Previously, a member state could elect to ban cultivation of approved GMOs only “if they had new evidence that the organism concerned constitutes a risk to human health or the environment or in the case of an emergency”. No such evidence has ever been presented. In response to a series of legal battles, the EU revised its guidelines to grant member states more freedom over decisions to ban GMO cultivation. Under the new (2015) directive:
a Member State may prohibit or restrict the cultivation of the crop based on grounds related amongst others to environmental or agricultural policy objectives, or other compelling grounds such as town and country-planning, land use, socio-economic impacts, co-existence and public policy.
Reluctance of some European countries to cultivate GMOs is often cited as evidence that European scientists and authorities are uncertain of their safety:
Washington wants Europe to ease restrictions on imports of these foods, commonly known as GMOs for genetically modified organisms, but the EU is skeptical they are safe.
However, according to an extensive European Commission Report on 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.
Within the report, Marc Van Montague Chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO) at Ghent University in Belgium goes on to say:
Now, after 25 years of field trials without evidence of harm, fears continue to trigger the Precautionary Principle. But Europeans need to abandon this knowingly one-sided stance and strike a balance between the advantages
Further, the European Academies Science Advisory Council has stated:
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.
Despite approval of GMOs, much of the food in EU member-state grocery stores is GMO-free, because, according to the European Commission:
Many food business operators have made the choice of not placing GM food on the shelves. This may be linked to the labelling obligations of the GMO legal framework, as well as the availability of non-GM alternatives.
Here are a few other helpful resources on GMO regulation in the EU:
Fact Sheet: Questions and Answers on EU’s policies on GMOs. April 22, 2015
A look at GMO policies in different nations. Layla Katiraee, July 6, 2015
Where are GMOs grown and banned? Genetic Literacy Project, Accessed April 27th, 2016