At the beginning of this year, the European Commission proposed to give individual member states the power to ban the use of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in human and animal food. With the anti-GMO movement gaining steam in Europe, we’ve witnessed various early reactions to that proposal. The proposal has also been recently severely criticized by a large number of EU agriculture ministers. One minister after the other would deem the proposition impractical, incomplete or simply unnecessary.

What are the current GMO regulations in Europe and how were they shaped? What are the criticisms of the proposal based on? Read on to find out the most important facts about GMO on contemporary European markets.

Initial reactions in Europe

Immediately after the declaration of the proposal, the Hungarian government put itself to work creating new regulation laws, among them a new labeling system introduced by the Hungarian Farm Ministry which will be used to identify products such as meat, fish, eggs, milk, and honey certified as GMO-free and livestock fed GMO-free food.

“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,” said Dr. András Rácz, the deputy state secretary.

Hungary’s Minister of Agriculture, Sándor Fazekas, called for the creation of an “Alliance for a GMO-free Europe” to encourage other EU countries. May European countries have in fact exhibited negative attitudes towards GMOs in the past – here’s a brief overview of the most important facts in the short history of European GMO legislation.

A brief history of GMO legislation in Europe

In the mid 1980s, European countries began to introduce a large number of consumer and environmental regulations, among them laws regulating the growth and export GMOs. Today these laws are far more restrictive than in the United States, where GM crops such as corn or soybeans make up for a large segment of the market.

The first directive regulating GMOs was adopted in 1990. It allowed each member state to “provisionally restrict or prohibit” the sale of GMOs under a condition of justifiable reason that an approved product poses a “risk to human health or the environment”.

In 1994, the directive was tested for the first time when a British company applied to market GM canola. The UK Department of the Environment proposed an EU-wide approval, but several countries such as Denmark, Austria and Norway opposed the marketing of the product in fear of contaminating their local crops of canola.

In January 2000, the EU issued a standard requiring the labeling of food as containing GMO, even if they included just 1% of material that was genetically modified.

Growing and importing GMOs in Europe – the current situation

The only GM crop grown commercially in the EU is a type of maize – MON 810 with Spain being its biggest European grower – it has 137,000 hectares (338,000 acres) in total. Needless to say, this is a radical minority as fields planted with this variety of maize make up for just 1.56% of the EU’s total maize-growing area. The maize is banned in many European countries, for instance Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.

Growing GM crops in Europe is regulated, but import of GM foods is completely haphazard. Some claim that the EU has been unable to fully agree on GMOs for import since 2003. If a member state company wants to import GM foods, it should to apply to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an agency responsible for assessing products for import. After a positive ruling, there’s one more thing to do – achieve a majority in voting by member states.

Criticisms of the proposal

From its beginnings the proposal fell victim to severe criticism from different parties.

“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,” said Eric Gall, Policy Manager of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) EU.

After the meeting of July 13, the negative opinions about the proposal mounted. Robert Kloos, the German deputy food and agriculture minister, said that it “has created more questions than provided solutions” and its GMO opt-out aspect “is neither practical nor legally sound”.

“I would like to see more arguments from the commission on how they see the practical possibilities to prove that a restriction is in line with EU law and trade commitments,” said Lithuanian minister Virginija Baltraitiene.

The debate has been initiated, so now it’s only a matter of time before a different agency drafts a legislative plan and again presents it to member states for assessment. With anti-GMO attitudes running high, it’s possible that GMOs will never grow to become a part of the European market in a degree comparable to the US.

This blog post was contributed by Cindy Boesel who works for timeo.co.uk – an online directory featuring, among others, post office opening times.

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