At the beginning of this year, the European Union chose to allow its member states to ban genetic modification in their respective agriculture industries. It’s clear that the anti-GMO movement is gaining steam in Europe – one of the countries with a radical attitude towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is Hungary, which aims to become the first EU nation to cut out the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

At the moment, the Hungarian government is busy creating a host of new regulation law, for instance a brand new labeling system introduced by the Hungarian Farm Ministry that will be used to identify products such as meat, fish, eggs, milk, and honey certified as GMO-free and livestock fed GMO-free food.

Dr. András Rácz, the deputy state secretary, said that “the Hungarian government is convinced that maintaining Hungary’s GMO-free status is the only right choice, because it is the only way to ensure that families have access to safe and sustainably produced food and to preserve natural diversity and the competitiveness of Hungarian agriculture”.

Additionally, Hungary’s Minister of Agriculture, Sándor Fazekas, suggested the creation of an “Alliance for a GMO-free Europe” that would encourage other EU countries to become classified as GMO-free zones.

Such a radical reaction to the new EU legislation generates a number of questions: Do GMOs actually pose a threat? And if so, should the EU provide more specific directives? Moreover, who will gain from the activities of the anti-GMO movement? A possible explanation for the current situation in the EU lies in its history – more specifically, in the history of European attitudes, policies and risk regulations developed after the Second World War in terms of GMO growth and import.

GMO – the beginnings

What exact is a GMO? A genetically modified organism or transgenic organism is an organism whose genetic material has been altered by means of techniques of genetic engineering, usually through a horizontal gene transfer, where inserted genes come for a different species.

The first successful attempt at genetic engineering was accomplished by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer in 1973, who used a biotechnology to enrich a bacterial with a special genetic sequence that allowed it to survive an antibiotic. Their experiments showed that various kinds of genes could be expressed in bacteria.

In the same year, Rudolf Jaenisch created the very first genetically modified animal – a transgenic mouse, whose DNA contained a virus the scientist injected into its early embryo. The first genetically modified plant was tobacco – developed by a group of scientists who added to its genetic composition an antibiotic resistant gene in 1983.

GMO regulations – a comparison between the US and EU

Looking at the history of the regulation of health, safety and environmental risks, from the 1960s through the mid 1980s the United States were much stricter in that regard than Europe. In the mid 1980s, things have changed radically – Europe initiated a wide range of consumer and environmental regulations, including those regualting GMOs, which today are far more restrictive than in the United States.

European regulatory policies have during the last 15 years of the 20th century become politicized and characterized by a suspicion of science, with a growing mistrust of government and industry. By contrast, the current US regulation of GMOs resembles the European regulatory style of the past with regulators working cooperatively with industry and supportive of technological innovation.

How did this turn happen? In 1984, the EU created a Biotechnology Steering Committee, which in turn established the Biotechnology Regulations Interservice Committee (BRIC), a technical committee that would serve as the main forum for developing biotechnology regulations within the European Union.

Unlike in the US, in Europe the Directorate General on the Environment, Consumer Protection, and Nuclear Safety became the responsible authority in drafting directives on regulating the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. The European Council adopted the first such directive in 1990. Among others, it allowed each member state to ‘provisionally restrict or prohibit’ the sale of GMOs under a ‘justifiable reason that an approved product poses a “risk to human health or the environment.’

In 1994, a British company applied to market GM canola, testing the new approach to regulation. While the UK Department of the Environment proposed an EU-wide approval, countries like Denmark, Austria and Norway opposed the EU-wide marketing of the product, afraid of contaminating their local crops of canola.

This event also marked the beginning of the labeling controversy, which was additionally powered by the increasing US production and export of genetically-modified crops. In January 2000, the EU issued a strict standard that required the labeling of food as containing GMO, even if they contained just 1% of material that was genetically modified.

At the same time, we’ve seen an in increase in public concern about the dangers of genetically-modified food. While the UK dramatized GM products as Frankenstein foods, the Netherlands witnessed demonstrations organized by the Alternative Consumers’ Union, who dressed up as genetically-engineered strawberries, the Grim Reaper, or even the Devil to protest biotechnology. Monsanto, the American based company and the major supplier of genetically modified seeds was called “Frankenstein food giant” or the “biotech bully boy”.

Growing GMOs in Europe

Right now, the only GM crop grown commercially in the EU is a type of maize – MON 810. Spain is the biggest European grower of MON 810 – it has 137,000 hectares (338,000 acres) in total. If you think that’s a lot, consider this – fields planted with this variety of maize make up for just 1.56% of the EU’s total maize-growing area. This type is actually banned in many European countries – Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.

Now that the European Parliament passed a new law that gives member states more flexibility, we’ll be able to see which countries truly oppose an agriculture that includes GMO. Members will be able to cite factors, such as protection of an ecosystem or the high cost of GM contamination for conventional farmers as reasons to ban such production. It’s important to now that this new law applies only to crops and not to GMOs used in animal feed.

Importing GMO to Europe

While growing GM crops in Europe has been enriched with a set of new policies, importing them is an entirely different case. In fact, the EU was unable to fully agree on GMOs for import as food and feed since 2003.

Using the template of the newly introduced law for growing GMOs, the European Commission has recently proposed to change the policies regulating the way GMOs are approved for import. If a company wants to import GM foods, it needs to apply to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is responsible for assessing products for import. After a positive ruling, member states must approve the GMO in question by qualified majority.

The proposal found severe criticism from anti-GMO parties, for instance Eric Gall, Policy Manager of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) EU.

We believe that this Commission proposal is a bad idea because it would be impossible to implement for Member States because of internal markets, it would be impossible to control. Member States anyway will face huge pressure from the US and other GMO exporting countries not to use this possibility to ban imports of GMOS,” he said.

It’s interesting to note that the proposal was also criticized by those who favor GMOs – like Beat Spath, the Director for Agricultural Biotechnology Europabio, who said that “It really runs against the principles of the internal market to have a patchwork of national bans on safe products. So it’s just another license to ban very bad precedent also for science based regulation.”

The Future of GMOs in Europe

Where is Europe headed in terms of GMO growth and import? In the near future we will surely witness a host of in policies employed to assess the risk of introducing GMOs to European ecosystems and markets as Europe will have to negotiate its position in trading with the US, at the same time embracing public attitudes towards GMOs, which – as the example of Hungary suggests – are still verging on negative.

The article was consulted with Torri Myler, a GMO expert, who works for a bank opening times company – Bankopening.co.uk.

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