While the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and China and many other countries have warmly embraced genetically modified crops, Europe remains the world’s big holdout.
Could this be about to change? New European Union rules now seek to clear up years of internal deadlock that could, in theory, lead to widespread cultivation of GM foods. But the fight is far from over.
The EU’s great GM debate pits two powerful forces against each other: green campaigners concerned about the effect of the crops on health and the environment, and the agribusiness lobby, which argues that Europe, by resisting a technology that boosts yields and rural incomes, is losing its place at the forefront of agricultural innovation.
Only five EU countries grow GM crops at all – Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia – and in such tiny quantities that they accounted for less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation last year.
Europe’s fragmented politics, diverse landscapes and smaller scale farming traditions have made it less compatible with the mass-farming techniques in the Americas and China. Only one type of modified crop – a pest-resistant maize – is approved for cultivation in the EU, compared to 96 commercial licenses granted in the United States since 1990, although Europe does import more than 30 million tons of GM grain for animal feed each year.
All this means that the newly minted EU deal – due to go before the European Parliament and Council by the end of the year – still faces major obstacles and public concerns.
Environmentalists such as Jose Bove, a French Green MEP who went on hunger strike in 2008 to force France’s first GM ban, says “the agreement gives biotech firms a direct role in lobbying governments, threatens single market principles and does nothing to protect cross-border contamination from GM seeds planted in neighboring countries”.
With the EU still poring over the results of May Euro-elections, it is unclear how the looming political battle will pan out. Even if the GM directive passes, will national governments court the ire of environmental campaigners by permitting large-scale GM cultivation? Stay tuned to find out how this political, social and environmental battles will play out for Europe.