Genetically modified (GM) crops are all the rage in Europe this year following the European Union (EU) Parliament passing legislation which allows individual states to make their own decisions regarding GM crops after years of back-and-forth debate on the issue at every level.
GM crops are modified on a genetic level to have one or more so-called “beneficial traits”, such as a tolerance to certain herbicides and pesticides, fortification of certain vitamins or nutrients, and resistance against other unfavourable factors, potentially allowing greater crop yields, foods richer in nutrients and decreased use of harmful chemicals.
There are many critics around the world, especially in Europe, who advocate the banning of GM crops due to safety concerns over their potential harm to humans, animals and the environment. While the US and Asia already employ a broad spectrum of GM crops and plants, Europe has remained largely opposed to the idea in general. Europe has legalised the widespread use of only two GM variants, which are stilled banned in several member states, against the already strict legislation of the EU. The turn of the year has seen a significant shift in the EU’s aims, with the UK at the head of the rush to change legislation in the interest of keeping up with global trends. In 2014 Owen Paterson, Britain’s environmental secretary, along with Prime Minister David Cameron, spearheaded a renewed push for the “opt-out” proposal, which has been put into effect by the European Commission this year.
Previously, a prospective GM crop would undergo assessment by the European Food Safety Authority, which would then decide if the crop could be marketed and grown in Europe at large. The “opt-out” proposal would allow each state that is a member of the EU to make that decision itself, effectively allowing any member of the state to ban or allow a specific GM crop according to its own government’s decision. This has resulted in different situations across Europe which could see GM production either increase or decrease on a national level as a result of this legislation. No GM crop is currently grown commercially on British soil, according to Genewatch UK, an associate organisation of the European Commission. However, with field trials of two GM crops underway and the release of this new legislation, the GM industry in Britain seems set to change, as stated by Genewatch on its website. Several countries in the EU, including Germany and France, have historically shunned GM crops in general but were pressured by the European Commission to comply with European laws and allow EU-approved crops to be grown in their territories. In 2007, Reuters reported that the European Commission intended to fine the French government almost €42 million for failing to comply with its GM-related laws. These countries are likely to adopt their old legislation now that the European Commission has given them the opportunity to do so, with the vast majority of citizens in several member states remaining sternly against GM crops.
While Europe clears its GM legislation, it finds itself behind in the GM industry. The US is the clear leader with massive corporations like Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and DOW Chemical dominating the global market since the 70s when GM crops were first put into widespread use. Meanwhile their European counterpart, Swiss-based Syngenta, was only formed in 2000 from the merging of several, smaller companies struggling to compete with the US. This scenario still has the potential to change as the German-based chemical company BASF begins renewed trials for their exclusively developed GM potato in the UK, leading to the first European company manufacturing European GM crops. This is a break from the traditional markets of European-based manufacturers, who largely sell their products abroad. In 2013, Syngenta reported that 74% of their crop protection products were sold on the US market. The US is also on the defensive. Having found that offshore GM producers are becoming increasingly more active in their territory, the US government is scrambling to write legislation required to regulate international suppliers.
The first question that comes to mind when confronted with the possibility of having traditional cross-bred crops replaced by GM crops is the obvious: “Is it safe?” The truth is that there is little that can be said of GM crop safety. While many studies conclude that there is no obvious danger in GM crop adoption, many of these studies are funded by GM companies. The environment in which GM effects are tested has many independent variables, such as weather patterns, changes in farming technique, and local pest population changes. Increases in crop yields over the past 40 years could be attributed just as much to improved farming techniques as to the use of GM crops.
There is not enough evidence to condemn GM crops as harmful, but there is also no way of being sure that this is not the case.
Image: Shen Scott