Why Europe's hostility towards GMOs may be softening

Why Europe's hostility towards GMOs may be softening

Europe's hostile stance against genetically engineered food may be relaxing even as the United States faces consumer calls for stronger labeling policies.

In May, the European Food and Safety authority rejected France's attempt to ban genetically modified corn from Monsanto.

"There is no specific scientific evidence in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment," the agency wrote in a ruling. Though the European Union (EU) hasn't decided how to enforce that decision, it signals a new stance towards the controversial issue.

Then, in late July, Ireland's environmental protection agency approved a small new trial on about five acres of genetically modified potatoes to resist late potato blight. (The potatoes have been tested for industrial uses in other parts of Europe since 2010).

And recent comments made against GMO bans by Anne Glover, the European Commission's chief scientific adviser, added another voice to the growing collection of hospitable attitudes in the EU towards genetically modified food.

Ironically, Glover's comments come as the debate over GMO food grows louder across the Atlantic Ocean. While there are only two GMO crops approved for farming in the EU (the aforementioned potatoes and Monsanto's corn), more than 90 are permitted in the U.S.

But a growing group of critics are working to turn the tide in the direction of the consumer. While an amendment to the federal Farm Bill that would have required labeling was thwarted in late June, California could become the first state in the U.S. to require GMO labeling if voters approve a ballot initiative in November.

Photo of genetically modified vegetable concept provided by Africa Studio via Shutterstock

Staunch attitudes among a voice for change

“There is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe — from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians,” Stefan Marcinowski, a board member with responsibilities for plant biotechnology, told The New York Times. “Therefore, it does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.”

Labeling of GMO foods is required across the EU, but a few countries have taken things farther with bans: Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg.

The hostility actually prompted biotechnology company BASF to abandon the European market for GMO products in January in order to focus on the Americas and Asia.

But in an interview with news website EurActiv, EU chief scientific adviser Glover stopped short of endorsing GMO food but suggested countries enacting bans should be required to justify them with data, not rhetoric.

"There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that's pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food," Glover told EurActiv.

Do food resource concerns trump risks?

Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority in Ireland conducting the GMO potato trial, emphasizes that its intent is not to develop GM crops for commercialization.  

Yet “if the results of the experimental release are positive, biotech companies may decide to place the GMO potato on the market,” which would mean making it available to farmers for cultivation purposes, Ireland’s EPA said.

Remember, this is the country that lost 2 million people to starvation and immigration during an infamous famine in the mid-1800s caused by blight.

Ireland’s EPA says more aggressive strains have emerged in recent years, which has forced farmers to use more chemicals to fight it.

The battle over labeling

Opponents of the California’s “Right to Know" GMO labeling campaign worry that labels may frighten consumers.

Part of the challenge is that GMOs are actually already part of more than three-quarters of all packaged foods sold in the U.S. Some estimates figure that 86 percent of corn, 90 percent of canola, and 93 percent of soy and cotton contain GMOs.

Given that backdrop, its not surprising that some industry organizations have made fighting labels a priority, because they could confuse consumers.

"Plant and animal biotechnology provides significant benefits to consumers,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association said.

“It has led to improved varieties of corn, soybeans, fruit and other foods that grow faster and are resistant to insects, bacteria and viruses. Some genetically modified foods and beverages contain enhanced nutrition and health benefits."

Turning point: Where do we go from here?

A year from now, we'll probably view the summer of 2012 as a turning point in the GMO food debate, especially as the U.S. drought prompts the agricultural industry to do more soul-searching about whether existing approaches are sustainable -- and whether the answer lies in advanced technology.

Maurice Hladik, author of the book "Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork" points out that despite the drought, the U.S. corn yield per acre is projected at 128 bushels per acre, while the harvest is estimated to be the fifth largest corn harvest on record.

Hladik, who grew up on a farm in Western Canada, said that genetic modification has a lot to do with this bounty. "With precision planting benefitting from the technology, farmers can be parsimonious with their chemical and fertilizer applications and have substantially reduced the amount required to produce a bushel of grain or oilseed," he said.

"For those who lament that agriculture has moved on from its bucolic past and is no longer as depicted as Norman Rockwell's painting of ‘The Country Agent,’ it should not be overlooked that the prime objective of the farming community is to feed the world,” Hladik said. “The adoption of advanced farming technologies is the only way that this can be achieved."

So how can biotechnology companies get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion and confusion over GMO food?

Here are three ideas:

  • Use science to tell the story: Support independent research about the effects of GMO and report faithfully on the results -- all of them.
  • Reach out to all stakeholders: Continue legitimate outreach to non-governmental organizations in both developed and developing countries.
  • Make amends with the organic farming community: In the U.S., Monsanto's policy of patent enforcement has alienated organic farmers. This does no one any good. While it's unlikely that they'll ever be best friends, striving for peaceful co-existence is a worthwhile goal.