October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A new law will allow countries to govern their own GM policies, potentially making the European food market less unified

GM cornA law passed by the European Parliament on Tuesday 13th January will give individual EU countries the right to allow or ban the cultivation of GM crops. The law, which comes into effect this spring after a 4-year delay, will allow the member states to choose whether to permit the growth of crops which have received approval by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or to ban them on grounds unrelated to safety.

Currently only one GM crop is grown commercially in the EU, MON 810, a type of maize engineered to produce the Bt toxin in order to fight off the European corn borer and other insect pests in the Lepidoptera order. This corn, almost exclusively grown in Spain, is used for animal feed. Europe also already imports a large amount of its animal feed from GM sources, around 30 million tons annually. Additional to this, some of the foods we currently eat in Europe contain genetically modified ingredients – unless you choose food without the GM label.

So what does this new law mean for GMO cultivation in Europe? Well it doesn’t make it easier for new crops to be approved but it does make it easier to ban them on arbitrary grounds. In a press release from the European Parliament, they mention the reasons any member state will be allowed ban a crop already approved as safe by the EFSA:

“The new rules would allow member states to ban GMOs on environmental policy grounds other than the risks to health and the environment already assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Member states could also ban GMO crops on other grounds, such as town and country planning requirements, socio-economic impact, avoiding the unintended presence of GMOs in other products and farm policy objectives. Bans could also include groups of GMOs designated by crop or trait.”

Jeff Rowe, Chairman of the Agri-Food Council of EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, describes these as “bans on non-scientific grounds”.

There has been a mixed reaction about this law from both pro- and anti-GMO groups, as well as the media. Some opponents seem to think this could lead to a massive increase in GMO cultivation in Europe in the short-term. Monsanto spokesman responded to these claims calling them “utter rubbish” and that:

‘We will almost certainly not see any new biotech crops grown in Europe for the next 10 years. It costs around $100 million (£66 million) in field trials and lab tests and years of waiting to get a crop approved for commercial sale in Europe, and very few companies can or are willing to invest this amount of money.’

Other opponents of GM crops, such as ‘Friends of the Earth’, see it as a major step forward in allowing local governments to ban GM crops. However, it is a double-edged sword as pro-GM governments, such as the UK, are likely to allow cultivation of GM crops in the future, while neighbouring anti-GM countries such as Scotland and Wales are likely to ban it. If the reaction from the big plant biotechnology companies is anything to go by, we won’t see much of an increase in GM cultivation in Europe by them. Perhaps we may eventually see the ‘fruits’ of independent researchers labour, for instance that of Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, being grown on a larger scale than current field trials.

So what does this all mean for the actual Research and Development of GM crops in Europe? This law breaches one of the main purposes of the EU – a common marketplace throughout Europe. It’s unlikely that the big plant biotech companies that have pulled out of Europe due to strict regulations will come back any time soon. They prefer to conduct research within the areas they hope to sell to and with the European marketplace becoming split it just doesn’t make sense for them to operate here.

Image: Wikimedia commons