EU policy making on GMOs has lost track of science

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can foster more sustainable farming, more crop varieties and healthier crops, but the debate on GMOs is politicised and lacks scientific justification, writes Marc Van Montagu.

Marc Van Montagu is the 2013 World Food Prize laureate and chairman of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI).

On 16 October 2013, World Food Day, I wrote on behalf of PRRI and several farmers organisations to the Presidents of the EU Institutions, expressing our deep concern about the effects of EU GMO policies and regulations on the potential of modern biotechnology to strengthen sustainable agricultural production.

If the EU wants to make farming more sustainable and be less dependent on agricultural imports, then its farmers need to have access to crop varieties that are less dependent on pesticides, that produce more per hectare, that require less mechanical soil treatment, that can withstand the effects of climate change, etc. 

Developing such crop varieties cannot be done by conventional breeding alone. Modern biotechnology can help considerably in reaching these goals, and in some cases it is the only solution available.

In 1990, the EU established a regulatory system for GMOs in which scientifically sound risk assessment is the basis for informed decision making.  For several years that system worked as it was designed: decisions were made within the time frames and were based on sound science.

However, since the mid 90s, some member states and EU institutions have, in a reaction to public concern in various food areas, embarked on some very counterproductive policies with regard to GMOs:

1. Continuously intensifying the regulatory system.

Despite the results of extensive biosafety research inside and outside the EU, and the cultivation of GM crops on hundreds of millions of hectares in many different environments worldwide, the EU keeps intensifying the regulatory requirements, without scientific justification.

The regulations have become an unnecessary, insurmountable hurdle for public research institutions. The June 2013 report produced by 25 Member State science academies united in the EASAC phrased it: “[…] Time-consuming and expensive regulatory framework in the EU, compounded by politicisation of decision-making by Member States and other policy inconsistencies […]”

In addition to politicisation, risk assessment is gradually moving away from the principle of ‘scientifically sound’. Some member states, and sometimes EFSA too, keep asking for more and more scientific data and tests, without a scientifically sound scenario, but just with reference to undefined ‘uncertainties’. This seems to be based on the ‘genomic misconception’, i.e. the misconception that genetic transformation causes more unintended changes in the genomes than natural crossing.

We urge EU to return to scientific evidence as the basis for decision making, to bring the risk assessment back to ‘scientifically sound’, and to acknowledge that the accumulated scientific evidence allows for reducing regulatory requirements.

2. Delaying decision making.

Despite positive opinions by EFSA, there are many dossiers that the European Commission has not submitted – sometimes for many years – for a vote by the member states, as the rules require. 

This practice of not submitting dossiers for a vote is a violation of EU rules as a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice made clear, and it deprives EU farmers a priori of the freedom of choice.

3. Invoking bans, without scientific justification. 

Some member states have made repeated use of the ‘safeguard clause’, which allows the provisional prohibiting a GMO if there is new scientific information suggesting risk. As EFSA demonstrated, for none of these bans was there a valid scientific justification.  The reasons for these bans were political, such as a deal between President Sarkozy and ecologists in which GM technology was ‘traded off’ for nuclear energy. 

To make the situation worse, the Council does not support the Commission in forcing Member States to abide by the law, and the Commission – confusingly – in turn presented a ‘nationalisation’ proposal that would effectively reward those member states that ignore the existing rules.

4. Supporting dubious biosafety research.

Last year a French group published an article suggesting that rats developed cancer due to the consumption of GM plants. The article has appropriately been referred to the rubbish bin by EFSA and many other authorities, concluding that the methodology of the study was fundamentally flawed, the data misinterpreted, and the conclusions unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, some MEPs keep parading that research, and the Commission has recently made considerable funds available for research that would in fact be a repeat of the above research. This is a waste of research budget, misuse of laboratory animals, and it fuels the misperception that the suggestions of the French article may be true.

In summary, the consequences of the EU GMO policies are: 

  • Unlike their competitors outside the EU, farmers in the EU do not have access to GM crop varieties that could help to increase productivity while having less impact on the environment.
  • There is a continued brain drain, meaning that an important root of innovation in the EU is constantly being cut back, and may die.
  • Europe remains a major a food and feed importer, with consequences for people in developing countries.
  • The credibility of the EU internal market with freedom of choice, and of the EU regulatory system is seriously affected. 

We call upon the EU institutions and Member States to take a broader, more holistic, and longer term view on agricultural production of food, feed and biomass, and to adjust the GMO policies and regulations accordingly.

More details can be found in the open letter to the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. 

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