A look at GMO policies in different nations

posted in: Commentary | 10

In the debate surrounding GMOs, a statement that is often made is that many countries have banned transgenic crops, which suggests that they are not safe. Here’s an example from the Non-GMO Project’s website:

Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.”

All countries have laws and regulations surrounding biotech crops, including the United States, which is why you can’t develop a transgenic crop and have it sold in stores the following season. Very few countries have an outright ban, where GMOs can neither be grown nor imported. According to GMOAnswers.com, only Kenya falls in this category, but I also found that Peru has a 10-year ban on the use and import of GMO seeds.

I wanted to look at GMO policies in other countries, but reading the legislation for 60+ nations seemed daunting. So, I decided to examine the laws in a few countries where I have roots. I was born in Canada, but my parents are Iranian who fled the Islamic revolution in 1979. I was raised in Venezuela (which is why I’ve written about dengue), and I met my husband while working for a year in Israel. I thought it would be interesting to learn about the policies surrounding GMOs in Canada, Iran, Venezuela and Israel since they are four vastly different nations  in terms of their economic and political perspectives. I thought that they should represent a cross-section of the policies and laws on GMOs in different nations.

Venezuela: Venezuela’s story about GMOs is fascinating in my biased opinion. To understand Venezuela’s stance on GMOs, a bit of a background is needed: Hugo Chávez was elected as Venezuela’s president in 1999 and remained in power till his death in 2013. He led a “socialist revolution” that took a very hard anti-American, “anti-imperialist” stance. As such, many of the policies in the country reflect this attitude. In 2002, Chávez passed a “seed law” which included the establishment of an institute that would oversee the testing, development and research of transgenics. However, in 2004 Chávez made the sudden decision of cancelling a contract with Monsanto, which was about to plant 500,000 acres of GM corn. There was no legal ban, yet no one has planted transgenic crops in Venezuela ever since the incident, which was paired with Chávez’s public statement saying “the people of the United States, of Latin America and the world, should follow the example of Venezuela and be free of transgenics.”

However, Venezuela relies very heavily on imports and food shortages have become increasingly common the last decade and have hit an all-time high in the last 1-2 years. Two of Venezuela’s biggest import partners are Argentina and Brazil, who also happen to be global leaders in the number of acres dedicated to transgenic crops. Despite the fact that Venezuela needs a dramatic increase in food production to meet the demands of its growing population, it plans to pass a law that will straight-out ban growing GMOs.

Venezuela’s story becomes even more interesting (this was first brought to my attention by Dr Felix Moronta on his website). A recent study published in a regional journal examined 12 Venezuelan corn growers: 10 were government owned and 2 were privately owned, and these represented 70% of the corn growers in the country. Using tests that searched for the transgenic protein as well as for transgenic DNA, the authors were able to determine that a government owned company was growing transgenic Bt-corn (for more info on the Bt trait, please see this post). The authors were also able to determine that the crop being grown carried a patented trait (transgenic event TC1507). The journal article, as well its summary by Dr Moronta, ask that the government clarify their stance. As Dr Moronta outlines, the government is banning growing and doing research on GMOs, yet it imports tons of GM grains and goods and is also growing at least one transgenic crop.

Venezuela’s position on GMOs strikes me as having little to do with the safety of transgenics. In reading articles and news stories on the topic, Venezuela’s ban on transgenics seems to be part of Venezuela’s ideology surrounding food sovereignty, as well as the nation’s desire to remove GM seeds from the equation so that small farmers can be successful in the country’s socialist revolution. However, there’s no evidence that the moratorium on growing GMOs has contributed to any of these goals given the devastating food shortages.

This article examines GMO legislation in Israel, Canada, Venezuela, and Iran. Made at http://matadornetwork.com/travel-map/
This article examines GMO legislation in Israel, Canada, Venezuela, and Iran. Made at http://matadornetwork.com/travel-map/

Iran: Only one transgenic crop has been approved for cultivation in Iran: rice. Rice is eaten every day in an Iranian household, so it stands to reason that Iran would try to take on rice as its first GE crop. Bt-rice was approved in 2004, but when President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, his administration “decided against the release of GM crops”. It’s important to note that Iran was the first nation to commercialize transgenic rice and this article outlines how Iran had hoped to quickly follow this success with additional crops. There was no ban or legislation against GMOs. Apparently, the decision to drop the commercialization of GMOs was due to the lack of a “biosafety law in the country, and lack of harmonization among different stakeholders (Ministry of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Organization etc.)”. However, the Iranian government now feels that it has established a decent biosafety law whose text states that the government should facilitate the release, research, and commercialization of GMOs. In fact, just last month, Iran announced that it had developed its first GE cotton variety.

Iran’s ventures into transgenic crop development make sense from an economic perspective. Due to the current sanctions that are in place, Iran is probably trying to figure out a way to boost crop production. Personally, I look forward to making tahchin with GM rice.

Israel: Israel is one of the most interesting places I’ve visited. However, its summers are very hot and it can be quite dusty. Despite the challenges inherent in its desert-like climate, the local fruits and veggies are spectacular. There are no GMOs commercialized in Israel even though the country is a hotbed for genetic engineering research, which comes as no surprise considering the interest that the nation has in drought-resistant crops. The absence of commercialized GMOs is due to the fact that a very large portion of Israel’s agricultural exports head to the EU, where they are slower and more cautious to approve transgenic crops for import (learn more on EU’s stance on GMOs here). As such, growing GMOs might have financial repercussions if the EU were to decide to be more wary of Israeli produce.

Canada: This database lists the GMOs that have been approved for cultivation in Canada. Health Canada’s website has a great description of the regulatory process to gain approval for cultivation and/or sale of a new crop. Briefly, when an entity is interested in submitting a new crop, they’re encouraged to consult with Health Canada beforehand to determine if there are any potential red flags. Then they submit the paperwork and undergo a scientific assessment. Health Canada can request additional information, will summarize its findings, prepares a ruling, and then posts the information on the Health Canada website. It seems very similar to the process in the US under the FDA.

Final thoughts

What struck me when doing research for this article is how little the science of GMOs was mentioned. I didn’t find any evidence to support the statement that “most developed countries do not consider GMOs to be safe”. I only looked into four countries for this article, yet three of them fall within the category of nations where there are severe restrictions on the cultivation of transgenic crops. As previously mentioned, these four countries are extremely diverse in terms of economic status and development, as well as their relationship with the US. Despite these differences, the common thread in this article seems to be the fact that laws or policies against GMOs are economic or political in nature, and have little to do with safety. If it were genuinely about safety, then nations would ban the import of GMOs, similar to what Kenya has done.

If you want to learn about policies in other countries that I haven’t covered here, I recommend starting this website from the Library of Congress. Feel free to share your findings below.

Follow Layla Katiraee:

Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelors degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Staff Scientist in DNA Sequencing Product Development. All views and opinions expressed are her own.

  • Greg Borchert

    I think that all of this commentary misses the point. Whether or not various types of transgenic crops are safe, most people want to make informed decisions about them. Unfortunately, GMO producers have fought every effort for the kind of GMO product labeling that American consumers would like to see. Those who have no concern about GMO products will continue to buy them, whether labeled as containing GMO’s or not. I think in fact that rather than the kind of mass hysteria some have predicted, meaningful GMO product labeling in the USA would accelerate their acceptance by the general public. Many of us simply feel that we should have the information we need to make informed choices about what we put in our bodies. Many of the countries you mention have GMO labeling laws in place. Consumers are intelligent enough to assimilate the needed information, differentiate between various types of transgender crop products, and make good choices. In a very real sense, the battle waged by the food industry to not provide GMO product labeling has created distrust surrounding this issue, and has if anything empowered the opposition. Label products, let consumers make informed choices, and all of the tension surrounding this issue goes away.

    • Please see my response below to MattT.

    • What label do you envision? I haven’t seen one yet that accurately tells consumers what is in a product. All of the ones I’ve seen have a vague and useless “May contain….” label on them. This is more confusing to consumers.

  • MattT

    How many countries label them?

    I think most people just want them labeled, not banned. You know, like it is in almost every other country in the world.

  • MattT

    “laws or policies against GMOs are economic or political in nature, and have little to do with safety.”

    Layla, I believe this is absolutely the case. Do you consider these reasons invalid because they are not based on the safety of gmos but rather based on concerns about food sovereignty and becoming beholden to foreign companies.

    Over and over again in many comment threads I see people voice numerous concerns about the dominance of certain gmo crops that have nothing to do with safety and they are inevitably called anti-science luddites and lumped in with anti-vaxxers.

    I think the monopoly that some companies enjoy over certain areas of our food supply is something to be concerned about.

    Now I’m sure someone will tell me to just buy organic and be quiet.

    • Hi Matt,
      I do consider the argument to be invalid, because they are applying a policy to a tool that has very broad applications. If they’re concerned about food sovereignty or becoming beholden to foreign companies, then I don’t think that a ban is the way to deal with the issue. Of the 4 countries listed here, Iran’s approach actually seems the most sensible: the country had moratorium in place until they had the infrastructure and legislation in place to regulate transgenic crops, and now they’re starting to develop their own GMOs, as evidenced by the Bt-cotton they recently announced.
      I agree that a monopoly over the food supply is something to be concerned about, but the argument is far from being an issue with GMOs, because large agricultural biotech companies also sell conventional seeds and seeds to organic farmers (see here http://www.wired.com/2014/01/new-monsanto-vegetables/). So banning/labeling/regulating GMOs does not really help address the issue. Additionally, there are a growing number of transgenic crops developed by small Ag companies, such as the Arctic Apple or the AquAdvantage Salmon.
      My personal thoughts on this is that there should be an increase in funding for the development and licensing of traits/crops by our public institutions. There should be an agency/body that provides grants and helps small start-ups or public agencies get their crops through the regulatory process. But a ban or tight regulations will probably give a competitive advantage to nations that allow biotech crops.

      • MarkDonners

        Anyone guilty of producing or trading in frankencrops and their associated pesticide/herbicide poisons should be indicted for conspiracy to poison and assault the public. There is no excuse whatsoever in this criminal act of ecocide and genocide.

  • Wow, tiny Israel on that map is far bigger than what it actually is! Hope your cartographer is not blamed as being part of some of conspiracy to project a “secret expansionist” policy!

  • William

    Channapatna – ?? The Israel I see on the map is indeed tiny and correct. Are you mistaking it for the much bigger Iran?