The biotechnology industry and environmental groups disagree on whether there is scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOS). Yet, there is one point where both sides of the argument have reached consensus – the European Commission’s recent handling of GMO policy has been a failure.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker began his term as president pledging to make decision making within the European Union more democratic. Within that framework, the Commission sought to review how GMO approvals were granted in spite of to member state opposition.
Accordingly, the Commission put forward two proposals to address the issue.
In March 2015, the Commission successfully implemented an opt-out system, whereby member states could vote to ban cultivation of genetically modified crops on their land, regardless of Commission authorisation. The Commission argued this was consistent with the subsidiarity principle, claiming decision making was best done at a national level. Of the 28 member states 19 requested an opt-out. Countries such as Britain and Belgium requested partial opt-outs for regions (Scotland and the Wallonia region respectively).
In October, the Commission put another proposal to the parliament which would give member states the authority to ban the sale or use of GMOs. This would apply to the few GMOs cultivated in Europe but more significantly to products imported from overseas, notably America.
The proposal was comprehensively rejected in the European Parliament by a margin of 577-75 with 38 abstentions. Parliamentarians aren’t alone in their criticism of this proposal.
Agricultural biotechnology director for the biotech industry group Europabio Beat Spath called on the Commission to drop the rejected proposal citing an abundance of flaws within the legislation.
“Everyone just completely rejected it because it disrupts the internal market, but also because we see it as a stop sign for innovation,” he said.
“It is also just an arbitrary non-fact based approach. We know that all the products are safe, that’s why they approved it at a European level in the first place and then they give the member states the option to bend them without any real objective reasons, just purely political reasons.”
Greenpeace spokesperson Mark Breddy also condemned the Commission’s handling of the issue, albeit for different reasons. He claimed the Commission had failed to adopt a more democratic approach on GMO policy.
“I think the vote in the European parliament was a reminder of this commitment the Commission took last year to improve the decision making process and the proposal doesn’t really solve the problem at all,” he said.
“The main problem we feel is linked to this proposal is that although it purports to give member states a right to opt out, it would not give them the right to use environmental or health concerns as a legal justification for an opt out, legally the opt-outs would be pretty weak.
“It was really a bad plan by the Commission, it was never going to fly and it was never going to give protection to European citizens and the environment.”
Despite attracting criticism from everyone with a stake in the GMO issue, the Commission has not indicated a willingness to drop the proposal. Accordingly, the proposal is now referred to the Council of Ministers.
Mr Spath said while the Council of Ministers is unlikely to accept the legislation, procedural matters could keep the issue alive for an extended period of time.
“They (the Council of Ministers) would need unanimity of all the member states to reject it in first reading. So that’s probably unlikely to happen but there is no majority in council to really work on this,” he said.
The Commission was contacted repeatedly for comment but did not respond before deadline.
What does the Science Say?
The debate regarding genetic modification of food in Europe is a particularly controversial one. Environmental groups and activists have been critical of potential long term impacts of genetic modification of crops, arguing they could have serious health and environmental risks. On the other hand, many scientists argue the science is settled and genetically modified food, subject to thorough risk assessment is safe.
An American Association for the Advancement of Science poll concluded an 88 per cent scientific consensus on the “general safety” of genetically modified foods. However, a report released by the Environmental Science Europe Journal in 2015 by a group of 15 scientists disputed this “consensus” claiming it was “not supported by an objective analysis of the referred literature.”
Mr Spath claimed only a minority of scientists disputed the consensus.
“All the representative scientific institutions, including the European academies of science, including American science representative organisations such as the World Health Organisation, always come to the conclusion that all the products that are already safety assessed and are on the market, are at least as safe as conventional counterparts,” he said.
“There is really no serious question about that it’s just a collection of a few scientists whose basic point is you never know for sure in the long term.
“It is a total nonsense, the few scientists who claim that there is no scientific consensus are simply there to keep the machine running of activists who have a religious problem with our product.”
Mark Breddy condemned the scientific integrity of the so-called consensus.
“Unfortunately, a lot of them studies are not independent studies. They are linked either to industry or the people who carried them out are in some way dependent on industry funding either directly or indirectly through the institutes of the universities that they work at,” he said.
“The other issue is there is very little scientific inquiry into the long term impacts of GMO crops. So the situation on scientific consensus is really not so clear at all.”
However, a former Greenpeace director, Stephen Tindale, split from his previous views on GMO safety and spoke out against Greenpeace’s continuing entrenched opposition to genetically modified food. He said the “overwhelming majority” of scientists think it is safe and that groups such as Greenpeace were taking a “morally unacceptable” stance, putting ideology above the needs of the poor.
Mr Breddy denied this statement was damaging to Greenpeace’s cause.
Why is Europe so Skeptical?
If it is accepted that scientific consensus exists, this raises a serious question as to why a majority of European countries are reluctant to embrace the use and cultivation of genetically modified food.
As it stands, GMO cultivation is very limited and confined to only a handful of European countries, most notably Spain which has been farming genetically modified maize since 1998. Only one genetically modified crop (MON810) has been approved for cultivation in Europe. This is a type of maize that is designed to resist pests. Most genetically modified products are imported from America, Argentina, Brazil or Canada.
Mark Breddy highlighted the opposition to GMO cultivation in Europe and said as a result of the opt-outs cultivation will be extremely rare.
“Obviously that is a huge number of countries that have said no to GM crops, they represent two-thirds of the farmland in Europe, so it’s pretty significant opposition,” he said.
“The Commission and the EU can still go ahead and approve GM crops, but that would mean they could only be potentially farmed in only the nine remaining countries, in fact it would be much fewer, because GM crops are mostly just grown in Spain, or the UK or the Netherlands.”
Mr Breddy said these countries were not going against science saying the safety assessments conducted by the European Food Safety Authority were insufficient.
“Even when very specific concerns have been raised, about the impacts on biodiversity, on insects, on pollinators, its always gone ahead and recommended the approval and dismissed the evidence of any harm and any precautionary measures,” he said.
Mr Spath accepted that levels of GMO skepticism are still apparent in parts of Europe.
“When the biotechnology was at the stage of being relatively new, there was a degree of skepticism everywhere in Europe and probably even in other parts of the world,” he said.
“This has persisted in countries where politicians didn’t push back on the myths.
“In Hungary, even the conservative party just said well, some people are very noisy about this technology, so let’s write into our constitution that we don’t want to have it and they have an anti-GMO clause in their constitution.”
Despite these challenges, Mr Spath claimed public opinion was beginning to shift towards biotechnology.
“We can certainly demonstrate it in the case of the UK. The level of skepticism used to be very high, but what happened is that maybe starting 8-10 years ago, all the main counties were starting to agree that this was a safe technology.
“According to some surveys, the public opinion in the UK is even more favourable to GMOs than in the US.”
Will TTIP lead to change?
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is being negotiated between Europe and the United States to radically promote free trade between the two continents. America is more open to genetic modification practices then is the case with Europe.
This raises the question as to whether Europe’s stance on GMO regulation could shift to be more compatible with America.
However, the European Commission has rejected the suggestion that GMO regulations will factor into TTIP negotiations. This statement was found on the Commission’s website: “The EU basic law on GMOs – including the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) safety assessment and the risk management procedure – is not up for negotiation. It will not change as a result of TTIP.”
Mr Spath agreed that change was unlikely to occur as a result of TTIP and called upon the Commission to simply comply correctly within their own regulatory framework.
“I don’t expect the regulation will change a big deal, but hopefully it will get implemented properly,” he said.
“For example, once a GMO product has been declared safe, the law says the Commission has just three months to put it to a vote, but they have taken 16 months just for that step alone for recent approvals.”
However, Mark Breddy was not convinced GMO regulation won’t factor into TTIP negotiations.
“That is certainly a risk and a major concern of ours. Europe would be a big market for the US and the US is trying to crack it,” he said.
“One of the reasons the US administration and big US companies have also criticized the Commission’s proposal is because they also don’t want to break up the EU market and limit their potential access to it if the floodgates are opened under TTIP.”
Where to Now for the Commission?
It is clear that the Commission’s proposal to allow member states the right to ban the sale or use of GMOs does not have the support in or outside the European Parliament. In the unlikely event that the Council of Ministers agree to the proposal, the parliament is unlikely to change its mind.
The Commission will likely be given no choice but to drop the proposal. If it decides to bring new legislation forward it’s clear that it must learn from its mistake and look to implement something that can work on a practical level and have at least lukewarm support from the stakeholders involved in the process.