GMO agriculture is widespread in the world, especially in the USA. It has been proven safe, though public discussion often lacks the facts. EU does not, however, embrace this technology. Should it?
In Europe, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or here more specifically GMO crops, face notable objection from citizens and organizations. Considering the widespread existence of such plants and the advanced technology, the discussion around the topic rarely manages to touch the scientific principles and the cumulative evidence, and more often still expresses fears and suspicion. This is a very brief look into the status and attitudes towards GMO agriculture in the EU and USA. While only these areas are compared here, GMOs are cultivated in varying amounts in other countries as well.
In the European Union, GMOs are mainly covered with a set of five specific main pieces of legislation, including two regulations and three directives. The Member states are allowed to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs in their area, issues like contamination across borders must be considered, and a directive (2015/412) even notes: ‘– the decision-making process has proved to be particularly difficult as regards the cultivation of GMOs in the light of the expression of national concerns which do not only relate to issues associated with the safety of GMOs for health or the environment’.
Among the member states, 19 have opted out of at least some EU-approved GMOs, a few have banned GMO crops altogether, and Spain and Portugal account for the most of EU-grown GMO crops in the form of maize, approximately 120,000 hectares in total. There are over some 70 GMO plants listed in the EU register of authorized GMOs, but they are mostly feed or food ingredient accepted and not actual cultivated plants.
According to a 2019 Eurobarometer survey, 27 % consider ‘Genetically modified ingredients in food or drinks’ a matter of concern, a significant drop from 2010, when 66 % reported concerns. The way the matter is framed in surveys and public discussion side to side with known issues, such as plant diseases and bacterial food poisoning, might even contribute to the way GMOs are thought of as a risk. The decision-making bodies reflect the public opinion at least to an extent.
As a contrast, in the United States, GMO agriculture is widespread and with some plants, such as soybean, cotton and corn, the portion of GMO cultivated area is around 90 %. Public opinion varies, and GMOs are not regulated with a specific federal legislation, but within other laws. The idea of the approach is to consider the nature of the products and not the method with which they have been made.
Major companies, such as Monsanto (‘Monsatan’, as it has been called by some activists) and their products have probably contributed to the image of GMOs as a suspicious business for global companies involving patents and contracts, even though the basic technology of genetic engineering is not private property and can even be used for philanthropic and environmentally friendly causes. A known example is the Golden rice, fighting vitamin A deficiency, which was just approved for use in the Philippines in late 2019.
The EU policy is based on the precautionary principle, emphasizing caution in the face of new technologies. While the principle is prudent in itself, scientific evidence on this issue is not lacking.
In this text, the term GMO is used for reasons of familiarity, although GE (genetic engineering) might be a more appropriate abbreviation. This is due to the point that all plants and animals that have been selectively bred during the history of mankind, are, by definition, genetically modified organisms. This insight underscores the fact how similar conventionally bred and engineered plants actually are. Thoughts of originality and purity may contribute on how GMOs are viewed in contrast to conventional crops, and the legislation that sets limits to maximum contamination levels from GMO plants in part reflects this thought process. GMOs are not, at least in the EU, accepted as a part of ‘normal’ agriculture, though they can be thought of a modern way to continue what humanity has for a good reason already done for a very long time.
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To date, the scientific publications on the safety of plants produced by genetical engineering and the foods made of them point to a clear conclusion: GMOs are safe for human health and the environment. Organizations including World Health Organization, American Medical Association and the Royal Society of Medicine among many others, have stated the same message. In addition, the use of GMO plants has been reported to increase farmer yields and incomes, especially in developing countries. Studies that have been published range in the numbers of thousands.
More widespread adoption of GMO agriculture could give EU a broader range of options to choose from, should the effects of climate change, trade disputes, or any other present or yet unknown future issue pose a threat to single foodstuffs or larger agricultural systems in Europe. Whether the difference in approaches towards biotechnology around the world is based on cultural differences or other reasons, discussion should continue. As with climate change, however, the discussion should remain within factual grounds to be fruitful.
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TEXT Jarkko Lampuoti
PHOTO International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) (CC-BY-2.0)
The author is a masters degree student of chemistry from the University of Helsinki and an active member of multiple organizations. He is interested in climate change, circular economy, nuclear energy, biotechnology and general painting with a large brush.