In the US, farmers have been cultivating crops with genetically engineered traits since the 1990s, and their use – and consumption – is widespread.
That’s not the case in Europe. In fact, a directive passed by the European Parliament in April 2015 gave member states (MS) freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to cultivate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their territory.
Under the new directive, by October over half of the European countries have now opted out of genetically modified (GM) crop cultivation.
But what exactly have they opted out of, and why?
Under previous regulations, any approval given for cultivation applied Europe-wide. This meant countries that opposed the cultivation of GMOs regularly worked to block authorization procedures.
Several national bans were also implemented. These bans were based on the only grounds available at the time – new (or reinterpreted) scientific evidence demonstrating a risk to human or environmental health. The legitimacy of these bans was, however, regularly contested and in some cases legally challenged within both national and European courts.
The European Commission recognized that this situation was undesirable, and for the last five years, negotiations have been taking place on how to reform the system to allow EU member states to decide for themselves on GMO cultivation.
However, there seems to be confusion about these reforms, as recently demonstrated in an opinion piece in The New York Times that presented the new directive as “anti-GMO policy” and suggested that countries were adopting blanket bans.
In what follows, we clarify what the new European directive entails. We also explain why we think it is a positive move for shifting GMO politics away from the unproductive and deeply polarized pro-anti trench warfare of recent decades.
The opt-out process
Under the new directive, a member state can now ask that all or part of its territory not be included in the geographical area for which a GMO is approved for cultivation. This request is submitted after the European Food Safety Authority has completed its scientific assessment of potential risks to human and environmental health: it in no way challenges or changes this assessment.
The applicant seeking approval for cultivation – primarily biotechnology companies – can actually then choose to accept or deny this request.
If the applicant (or “economic operator”) denies the request to exclude a certain country or region from the introduction of the approved GM crop, the member state can then formally implement restrictions based on a broader range of justifications than was previously allowed.
Beyond human and environmental health risks, these justifications can now be based on environmental, agricultural or public policy objectives, socioeconomic impacts, town and country planning, land use and concerns regarding the possibility for organic, conventional and GM agriculture to coexist.
Importantly, countries can also choose to opt back in at any time by simply submitting a request to have their territory included again.
What this means is that countries (or regions) are not opting out of GMO cultivation in general. That is, they are not declaring an “anti-GMO” position. Rather, opt-out requests are submitted in relation to specific crops and are decided on a case-by-case basis.
Member states can choose to opt out of either the cultivation of individual GM crops or groups of GM crops modified to express the same trait. For example, due to a desire to try to advance sustainable agriculture, MS may choose to opt out of all GM crops designed to tolerate the use of herbicides. But they could remain open to crops modified to resist disease.
This new directive therefore creates a more flexible form of regulation. It is not about member states taking a pro or anti position on GMOs in general, which they then hold forever. Rather, it allows for more differentiated assessment of desirability regarding both different forms of the technology and across different cultures.
Flexibility on what type of genetic modification is deemed acceptable is particularly important now. Biotechnology continues to evolve, and techniques like marker-assisted breeding, recombinant DNA, CRISPR and synthetic biology give people more tools for modifying genes. These may legitimately be judged to have different levels of acceptability by different individuals and/or member states.
Under the new directive, different countries and cultures are therefore being given the possibility to break the straight jacket of a pro-anti dichotomy and adopt a more nuanced position on what types of crops are desirable. Far from being “anti-GMO” legislation, this new directive actually opens the way for more approvals (for those countries wanting them) by breaking the political deadlock that has stalled authorization procedures for years.
Not all about human health
This enhanced flexibility and freedom to decide is important.
The European approach to GM crops, food and feed supports traceability and labeling, and emphasizes the importance of having in place measures that allow organic, conventional and GM agriculture to coexist. This represents a commitment to transparency and is designed to give both consumers and farmers the rights to know and choose.
Now countries and regions are also being given the right to choose how they want to practice agriculture.
The connection between food and culture is widely recognized, but how we go about producing that food is also deeply cultural. Both food and agriculture are connected to beliefs, values and ways of life. Views on how we should feed ourselves involve much more than just questions of safety. They include questions of how we want to live on this planet, how we want our societies to be structured and how we want to relate to all the other species our survival depends upon.
Furthermore, GMOs are not just technical devices. As all technologies, they are a package involving particular sociopolitical beliefs and leading to particular socioecological systems.
This is clear in the controversy around GMOs, which is not limited to questions of the health impacts of this technology but is also connected to a number of other issues, including patents on living organisms, monopoly ownership rights, concentrations of power and the socioeconomic implications of trying to control that other systems are not contaminated with GMOs.
All this means that we should approach GMOs from a systems perspective and assess the whole package – something we are currently working toward in Spain and South Africa through The Agri/Cultures Project (funded by the Norwegian Research Council under their FRIPRO program).
The new era for GMOs brought on by this directive in Europe is only just beginning, and many questions and challenges remain, such as the question of whether supporting evidence for the new opt-out justifications is available and necessary.
However, we believe that giving member states the freedom to adopt more nuanced positions, and the ability to make choices based on social, ethical, environmental and health grounds, is a positive move for the future of GMOs in Europe.