The European Attitude Towards Agricultural Biotechnology
Oct 21, 2015
Resistance among EU environmental groups to products made from crops grown with biotech seed started almost as soon as the technology became available in the United States. As discussed in an earlier blog post, the first commercial GM crop in the United States, Round-up Ready soybeans, was introduced in 1995. The first shipments of U.S. soybeans that likely contained some Round-up Ready varieties was sent to Europe the following year, and opposition to this development, largely generated by environmental and anti-globalization groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth emerged almost immediately. These groups raised general but untested concerns about the health and environmental impacts of the technology, which were amplified by the tabloid press of the era, especially in the United Kingdom, into a broad-based hysteria about the safety of the products for human consumption. Even though the phrase 'Frankenfood' to describe food from biotechnology was coined by a professor at a U.S. university in a 1992 New York Times article, it was British tabloids which popularized the phrase.
Scientific authorities in the European Union sought to rebut the alarmist narrative being created in the public sphere about agricultural biotechnology, but the credibility of those institutions with the general public had been weakened as a result of being bracketed by serious public health crises having nothing to do with biotechnology. The first crisis, associated with the peak outbreak of cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease among the cattle population of the United Kingdom occurred initially in the early 1990’s and the second arose from the detection of animal feed contaminated by the poisonous compound of dioxin in Belgium and other European countries in the late 1990’s. In both cases, scientific authority was weakened by their institutions’ seeming inability to identify and address the roots of those crises for long periods.
By 1999, the European Union had imposed a de facto embargo of imports of crops or food products produced through the use of agricultural biotechnology, and later formally instituted an incredibly complicated system for approving imports of these products. This system was challenged under the WTO dispute settlement process in 2003 by the United States, later joined by Canada and Argentina in requesting a dispute panel in 2004 after consultations failed to resolve the differences. In 2006, the WTO panel found that the EU system was so impenetrable that undue delays associated with approvals amounted to a de facto moratorium on approvals of GMO crops for importation.
Even though the WTO case in 2006 made it clear that the EU could not bar approval of GMO products for consumption or cultivation, resistance to actual planting of such crops continues. While dozens of corn, soybeans, rapeseed, and sugar beet GM varieties have been approved for importation, only two varieties, Monsanto’s MON-810 corn and Syngenta’s Bt11 corn, both designed to resist certain pest species such as corn borers, have been approved for cultivation. As of 2015, only about 300,000 acres of MON-810 corn had been planted in EU countries, primarily in Spain.
Although such crops are legal under EU rules, many EU member countries continue to resist the use of such seeds. The French government banned use of MON-810 seed in 2008, a decision which was declared illegal in 2011 by the European Court of Justice. However, rather than enforce the Court’s decision, the EU Commission has instead implemented rules to allow EU member nations to ‘opt out’ of allowing GM crops to be cultivated, even though its experts have made it clear there is no scientific justification for such measures. As of October 14, 2015, 19 of 28 EU member countries have invoked this option for some or all of their national territories. U.S. farm groups and the U.S. government have signaled their opposition to this step by the EU, but no formal steps under the WTO dispute settlement process have yet been taken.
The continuing anti-GMO attitude of much of the general public in EU member countries has created a serious obstacle to the utilization of agricultural biotechnology by developing countries. The hostility to agricultural biotechnology evinced in the EU in the 1990's was quickly transmitted to many developing countries, especially in Africa. The vector for this transmission was primarily two-fold--long-term political and cultural ties between the two regions, many stemming from colonial relationships, and the fear that growing such crops could lead to reduced access to EU markets, even though Africa as a region is a large net importer of food and agricultural products.
I will discuss more fully the implications of African resistance to agricultural biotechnology in a later blog. However, given the expected constraints on access to arable land and water for the expansion of agricultural production needed to feed a global population of more than 9 billion within 35 years, I believe that restricting access to such technology would unnecessarily tie the hands of farmers even further in meeting that objective.