The European Union’s opposition to GM crops has nothing to do with safety

posted in: Commentary | 32

Two years ago, a woman in a classroom with me muttered “isn’t that a good thing?” about the ban on the cultivation and importation of most genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the European Union (EU), “it protects EU citizens, right?”

“Nope, the ban on GMOs merely allows the EU to act as an autonomous region through its politics of food security. The EU set up the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in part for food security, and the ban on GMOs is but an excuse to ban foreign imports and prevent dependency on foreign seed manufacturers in order to maintain the EU’s agricultural self-sufficiency,” my professor for my course on the development and politics of the EU responded.

In spite of my friend’s interjections that the restrictions of GMO imports and cultivation were meant as a form of consumer protection, this professor demonstrated  examples to the contrary, highlighting how the ban reflects economic protectionism rather than safety considerations and how the EU’s economic protectionism ensures food security and therefore self-autonomy. Like the misconceptions of my friend on the EU’s policy toward GMOs, anti-GMO advocates and the larger public frequently cite the EU’s policies towards GM crops as evidence; contradicting the conclusions of major scientific, health and  food safety organizations from over 600 studies showing the general safety of GM crops. In reality, social and political factors, not scientific concerns, form the basis of the EU’s opposition to cultivating GM crops.

Wheat grown in the United Kingdom, which benefits from the Common Agricultural Policy.

The roots of European agricultural protectionism stem from the formation of the European Union itself. After World War II, Robert Schuman and other European leaders decided that the only way to prevent the outbreak of another war was to link the European economies together, particularly the French and German economies. The shared economic interests would prevent the outbreak of subsequent wars, and therefore lead to increased international interaction within Europe.

Schuman and the other founders commenced on two fronts: by unifying Europe in coal and steel production through the ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community) and soon after in agricultural production through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Implemented in 1962, the CAP subsidized agricultural production in the EU to stabilize european food markets and ensure food security. Despite the high costs, utilizing over 70% of the EU’s overall budget in 1972 and currently costing european consumers over 100€ per year, the CAP remains a central part of EU food politics in an attempt to maintain stable food prices and food security in Europe. Despite the high costs, food security remains integral to European level politics and this manifests in agricultural protectionism.

Due to the extra-national nature of major biotechnology corporations, European attitudes towards GMOs reflect the European policies of food security and self-autonomy through economic protectionism. In order to maintain self-autonomy, the EU must maintain food security through self-sufficient production, since risks to food availability threaten the social and political stability of a region. This desire for self-autonomy therefore leads to a policy of domestic protectionism, which protects inefficient agricultural production at all levels of production in order to ensure food security. Although the EU’s actual food security and self-sufficiency are debatable, economic protectionism of food production also extends to the acquisition of necessary primary materials, such as seeds.

In order to ensure that Europe is immune to outside influences potentially implicating its food security, the EU must also ensure that Europe is not dependent on outside regions for seeds. Since the largest GMO providers, such as Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont, are extra-national corporations from the United States and Switzerland, the adoption of GMOs presents a perceived risk to European food security by relying on foreign multinational corporations for input materials.

The opposition of the science-based European Food Safety Administration (EFSA) to the EU’s restrictive GMO policy further reinforces the idea that social and political reasons outweigh scientific concerns in restricting GMO cultivation and imports in the EU. The EFSA has repeatedly stated its supported for GMOs previously approved in other countries, such as Bt cotton, Roundup-resistant cotton, and GM maize. Despite these recommendations, which state the low likelihood of any detrimental impact from commercial adoption of these crops, the EU’s food policy remains one of the most restrictive to GMOs in the world. Rather than restricting GMO cultivation on the basis of scientific considerations, the EU’s anti-GMO stance rather reflects their politics of food security and self-sufficiency and emanates from the european agricultural policies active since the beginnings of the EU.

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Graduate student in protein structure function and proteomics and an absolute skeptic obsessed with learning more, helping clear misconceptions, and listening to terrible music.