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

Written by Alexander Huszagh

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.

Written by Guest Expert

Alexander Huszagh is a C++/Python developer with a Masters in cellular and molecular biosciences from UC, Irvine. He applies computational biology and mass spectrometry to the study of protein machines.


  1. “it protects EU citizens, right?” Check out their policy with regard to mutation breeding. A real ho-hum approach especially compared to the hair on fire approach to GM. If they were really that anxious about the uncertainty created by GM plants, wouldn’t you think they’d have same attitude towards mutation breeding?

  2. What is wrong with food security? What if the GMO dream doesn’t actually work out?! Europe bases it’s law on precautionary and preventive action principles. (North) Americans could learn from them. EU environment and consumer protection is actually important to EU citizens. The USA has often cried foul on EU agriculture policy citing it as protectionist. It’s easy to view it that way when you’re on the outside looking in. (Is this professor even European? Are you?) EU agriculture policies are not perfect but the American model is far from perfect as well (I would argue it’s even farther). EU citizens also value the taste and quality of their food and are willing to pay for better quality food on the whole. This is actually a very important criteria and can’t be overlooked. In addition, EU agricultural policy supports the diversity of farms that take environment, social and welfare aspects into consideration in the maintenance of their model. Americans, steeped in a very pro corporate model and view of society (and then agriculture) see these as bad words and comment that Europe’s model is “costly” and “wasteful” with so much opportunity to achieve “economies of scale”. Let us remind ourselves that it’s not always about quantity; quality is also an important aspect still – and let’s hope it remains that way.

  3. What about the fact that Switzerland is as anti-GMO as the EU despite the fact that Syngenta is Swiss ?

  4. Well I’m “European” and I want the choice to grow and buy genetically engineered food stuffs at home. I wants me some grilled AquaAdvantage salmon with some Golden rice and Rainbow papaya salad to go with it!

  5. I am European and American. I’m a Belgian/American dual citizen, if you’re asking, and the professor was Belgian solely. I fail to see why that is pertinent, since it seems to be an example of poisoning the well, but I shall provide that information nonetheless.
    I fail to see how taste, production size, and quality are relevant factors in banning GMOs from Europe. GMOs can be grown in a home garden, or on a factory farm. And organic factory farming is still factory farming, even if you can use a code to trace the origins of your food. The EU does ensure some quality control, but then again, so does the US. I would recommend a limited use of the precautionary principle in public health measures, and am very much in line with this editorial:
    The precautionary principle needs to base itself in scientific evidence, in order to minimize type II errors (false negatives). However, significant testing has gone into GMO safety, and the precautionary principle is no longer valid for risk assessments of GMOs. I ask why well studied organisms with repeated demonstrations of their safety are held to an unreachably high standard of safety when few other organisms produced by cross-breeding or mutagenic breeding can even come close to a risk level as low as currently approved GMOs.

  6. That’s a very different case study, but you are slightly wrong there: Switzerland is more anti-GMO than the EU. I’m focusing primarily on EU-level politics, which Switzerland does not take a part of. They do partake in the Schengen Zone, which signifies they must comply with EU agricultural policies, however, their politics are of a different nature than EU politics. An interesting example, which unfortunately I cannot adequately comment on. If anyone knows Swiss politics, I would hope they would be willing to comment on the case.

  7. ‘Europe bases it’s law on precautionary and preventive action principles.’ Did you read what I posted above, Stephan? If this is the case then a) Europe is not following its own laws, and b) they have a very selective application of the precautionary principle (politics, protectionism? You bet). What about preventing the deployment of plants bred through mutagenesis due to the possiblity of new allergens and toxins? What about thoroughly testing organic methods to prove that they’re not increasing foodborne illnesses (bacteria and mycotoxins). After all, doesn’t the principle make it clear that “proof” of safety lies with the producer?

  8. The dominant scientific voice everywhere is not anti-GMO. However, the public differs highly in their perception of what the inherent risks of many technologies are or the inherent reality of scientific findings are, sadly. Global warming denialism, CAM, and creationism come to mind.

  9. Yes, very sad. Did you know that all the municipalities of Canada just voted to ban GMOs entirely? They don’t have the authority to do that, but the idea that they’re unanimously against the scientific consensus is terrifying to me. If I’m wrong about that vote – if it turned out to be a hoax, I’ll be HAPPY to learn I’m wrong about it.

  10. Very well stated, I will however add one caveat: Europe tends to employ the precautionary principle more frequently than the United States. A good example of this is actually irradiated foods, at least in principle:
    At least in application, their policies are somewhat comparable for irradiated crops as they are for GMOs. However, due to the prevalence and long history of irradiated crop use (since the 1930s, with over 2000 commercial cultivars produced), this law becomes essentially meaningless for many foodstuffs with irradiated ingredients.

  11. This is no doubt a well-written piece accurately reflecting the views aired by some distinguished professors. So the issue really is whether the professors are or were correct in their analysis.
    The European Union and GMOs is a very long and convoluted story. Safety has played a key rôle in the beginnings. GMOs indeed became an issue for political and media circles at the time of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) crisis. Activists were quick and clever at spreading FUD, and politicians were scared at taking any decision that might have involved their personal responsibility. The BSE “scandal” was not the only one. In France, we also had asbestos, AIDS-contaminated blood, human growth hormone transmitting the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, etc. Safety was thus translated into opposition, camouflaged as a moratorium.
    The ban on GMOs met with opposition from GMO-growing countries, particularly the USA, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico and New Zealand, at the WTO. This caused the European Union to produce, in defense, “evidence” that GMOs were not safe or at least not proven or guaranteed safe (one Mr. Seralini was involved in that…), making it even more difficult for governments to agree to their cultivation and use.
    The EU eventually lost in 2006. It then budged in part, leading to a situation where, essentially, GMO grain is authorized for importation and use – but only after extensive and rather dilatory procedures – and GMO varieties are not authorized for cultivation (MON 810 corn and the Amflora potato are accidental exceptions; many countries maintain a “moratorium” on the cultivation of MON 810 and Amflora is no longer grown).
    Activists may claim that the authorizations to import and use are a consequence of the ruling by the – hated – WTO. In part only: the EU is the largest food and feed importer with China, and basically had little choice.
    So it is quite wrong to state that “the ban on GMOs merely allows the EU to act as an autonomous region through its politics of food security”. Food and feed importations, converted into land area used for production, represent something like the total area of Germany. There is thus no food security. And current policies favor the urban view that agriculture must become more environment-friendly, meaning that there is no longer a food-security policy.
    The GMO-producing countries are quite content with the EU policy… Monsanto and the like are marginally affected: they have a fairly strong foothold in Europe and continue to sell “conventional” rather than GM varieties; their European competitors, like Limagrain, have no domestic base for the production of GM varieties and are thus at a competitive disadvantage on the other markets; European breeders altogether are relegated into the second if not third league in terms of research and development.
    And, having chosen to impose a competitive disadvantage on its own agriculture, the EU has opened further its market for imports. For example, in 2006, Romania grew 190,000 hectares soybeans, of which 137,000 were GM, and was self-sufficient for plant proteins. Having entered the EU, she had to ban GM soy. Soy production is now limited to 47,000 hectares, despite governmental support, and Romania must import soy from Brazil.
    “In reality, social and political factors, not scientific concerns, form the basis of the EU’s opposition to cultivating GM crops”? True, but it has nothing to do with food security or agricultural protectionism. Nor has it anything to do with the “extra-national nature of major biotechnology corporations”. Actually, the EU could boast major players, some of whom have moved their research to more GM-friendly countries. Nor with a desire not to be “dependent on outside regions for seeds”. Actually, seeds for European agriculture are essentially and for some compelling reasons produced in Europe.
    To sum up, the professor for the course on the development and politics of the EU may have strong views on development and politics, but no clue about agriculture, plant varieties and seeds.

  12. I would like to let you know that I have read your post, I am crafting a response, and I will post it hopefully later today. I am currently attending workshops in addition to numerous other activities of graduate school (including research).

  13. Good question! One answer is that if the European legislator had taken the same cold feet approach to mutation breeding and some other techniques, they would have had to admit that they had been careless for decades.
    It so happens that activists are quite noisy about submitting “hidden GMOs” – lab bench-produced varieties, e.g. through artificial mutations or cell fusion, i.e. anything that would not be possible to obtain through natural means – to the same authorization procedures than GMOs.
    It also happens that organic producers should logically be deprived of all “hidden GMOs”, and their descendants, should they come in the spotlight as products of non-natural manipulations.
    The German television ZDF created quite some furore when it reported that most produce from some vegetable species was GM, as being grown from hybrids based upon CMS, although it was purported to be organic:
    Believe it or not, Greenpeace wrote a piece to “explain” that cell fusion was not genetic engineering:
    Most enjoyable!
    So back to the European legislator: which lobby group to please? Which lobby to displease?

  14. Switzerland being more anti-GMO than the EU is a bold statement and a matter for debate.
    In November 2005, the Swiss People voted, by a majority of 55.7%, a five-year moratorium on GMOs following an initiative by the Greens, “for food without GMOs”. Thethe moratorium was extended twice, by the Federal Council on May 14, 2008 (until November 2013), and by the National Council on 26 September 2012 (until November 2017).
    Whilst the EU authorities have been rather inactive or have taken at best a scattershot approach, the Swiss have launched a comprehensive research program, NRP 59:
    The first moratorium extension by the Federal Council (government) was due to the fact that the results of the program were not expected to be available before the summer of 2012.
    On the basis of the results, the Federal Council submitted for comments, on February 20, 2013, a proposal to revise the law and authorize the use of GMOs in Swiss agriculture as from the end of the moratorium in late 2017.
    As expected, the Greens have already threatened to launch a referendum.
    So, who is “more anti-GMO”? The EU authorities which are mulling over a proposal to allow individual member States to ban GMOs on grounds other than health and evironment, or the Swiss authorities which have taken a step to move forward?

  15. And, by the way, whilst Switzerland is neither a member of the EU, nor a member of the EEA, the European Economic Area, its people having rejected the accession to the EEA by a very short majority (50.3%) on December 6, 1992, it by and large follows the principles set by the European Union. This means, there is a silly game going on, called “bilaterals”: the EU and Switzerland negotiate and, at the end, the EU wins. But Switzerland nominally maintains its sovereignty.
    This applies to a number of issues. Agriculture is excluded. That means, Switzerland must NOT comply with EU agricultural policies.
    And, by the way, the Schengen Zone has nothing to do with agriculture, but with the circulation of people.

  16. That’s a bit too straight.
    The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) in Zurich harbors Angelika Hilbeck…

  17. I believe you are right on the latter, and I am sorry for the mistake that I posted. I am still absolutely busy, but I am ready your posts. As far as the role of Switzerland and other factors, I will be addressing those within the next 9 hours (still at work).

  18. I would argue that the larger plurality of politics in the EU makes the EU as a whole more pro-GMO than Switzerland, since there is are very different politics in place between Spain and France. Politics regulating GMOs may be comparable between Switzerland and France, however, countries like Spain (which grow many GMOs, but only those approved on the EU level) have overall more GMO-friendly relations.
    Anyway, back to work. I’ll be responding to your criticisms of my post soon.

  19. I’m afraid readers are again being misled, provided they make sense out of the comment.
    As far as I am concerned, it makes no sense to make comparisons between a collection of States, on the one hand, and a single State on the other; and to conclude that the first is more pro-GM because it includes States which grow GMOs (essentially Spain and Portugal).
    By the way, Spain does NOT “grow many GMOs”: it only grows MON 810 corn (on 116,000 hectares in 2012).
    You write : “Politics regulating GMOs may be comparable between Switzerland and France”. You should double-check or abstain. They actually are completely different. As explained above, the Swiss Government has drawn the obvious conclusion from scientific work on the whole array of issues and is proposing to allow GMO cultivation. As known by most readers of this site, the French Government has a policy of using any pretext – including Seralini junk science – to oppose GMO cultivation.
    On, August 1, 2013, the Conseil d’État (a court deciding on the legality of administrative decisions) annuled the latest “moratorium” decreed by the previous Government (for all intents and purposes President Sarkozy). The very next day, President Hollande stated that a new moratorium would be introduced.
    Early enough to prevent the sowing of GM corn, and late enough to prevent too early a quashing.
    So, comparable politics?

  20. “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”
    RE: the major scientific, health and food safety organizations,
    The Council on Science and Public Health is an industry-friendly organization that often promotes unhealthy products. The other groups you’ve offered as support must try to assess the available science, but they don’t have control over what kind of research and conclusions are being drawn.
    And by linking to GENERA, this site’s own list of research articles on GMOs in order to say “over 600 studies showing the general safety of GM crops” – seems like an attempt to simply overwhelm people with the enormity of research done. Not all of those articles show the safety of GM crops. And how do we know if the research that’s done properly assesses the GM crops?
    One of the concerns about GM crops is their environmental impact. Shouldn’t any sovereign nation have the right to decide for itself whether or not some new organism is safe for human consumption or wide-spread planting? I mean, even if they’re wrong, shouldn’t we respect that right? A lot of people in the US don’t like that Chinese products have supplanted US-made products on the shelves in their stores. Toxic pet food, deadly heparin, lead in toys, etc. But to restrict import would be to violate China’s “most favored” status. I’m uncomfortable criticizing Europe’s policies. I think if they’re rooted in protectionist attitudes there may be good reasons like they don’t want multi-national corps restricting their internal decision-making about agriculture. It’s not just about selling seeds there, it’s about “leasing technology” and all the restrictions that puts on the farmers too.

  21. The Swiss situation is quite simple, their political system is much more a direct democracy. and their citizens have the ability to call for referendums at a federal level, such majority rule systems have been known to have the issues of being easily led by propaganda through media since the ancient Greek’s.

  22. A link to Jeffrey Smith’s site is not evidence of harm, and indeed argues against your position. It is not a scientific source, nor a mainstream news source, nor even written by an expert in the field. Confusing correlation with causation is not evidence, which is what is required to establish a claim of harm.

  23. The only protectionism with gm crops is the neutered produce ensures the protectionism of monsanto’s monopoly of unnatural seed production and pesticide products. Europe would be out of it’s mind to become reliant on monsanto for seeds.
    England is an island and we know all too well about food rationing, it was still going on in the early 1950’s. Why would we want to be reliant on delivery of monsanto neutered seeds? It sounds like monsanto is trying to racketeer.
    The kind of protectionism people want is protectionism against all products that potentially make them ill.
    monsanto corn has proved to cause cancer, and monsanto potatoes have had diabolical consequences on rats, it’s astonishing that monsanto doesn’t retreat in shame but instead continually batters the public with more twisted angles to impose it’s products on the unwilling.
    The people are just saying no to gm. Maybe if monsanto continues the people will find their power in saying no. I hope so. What will make monsanto stop? Masses of ill people blaming gm for their sicknesses and suing. I hope it doesn’t go that far and that the illnesses remain in the unfortunate lab rats.

  24. Frankly, I am shocked by this comment, which is an extraordinary concentrate of the most unbelievable disinformation coupled with a lack of understanding of the subject matter..
    What is a “neutered produce”. If reference is made to sterile seeds, there are no sterile seeds.
    Monsanto has no monopoly. It will never have, if at all because one company cannot provide seeds for all cultivated species and all countries, i.e. for the world’s varied agro-climatical and economic conditions. This is over and above the fierce competition on the seed market from other companies, multinational and national, large and small; and over and above the farmers’ ability to produce their own seeds in certain crops such as wheat.
    “[U]nnatural seed production”? Monsanto’s seed production is as natural as that of any other company.
    “Europe would be out of it’s mind to become reliant on monsanto for seeds”? Monsanto is already a major player on the European seed market.
    England is an island? Sorry, it’s not just England… and there is now a tunnel.
    “It sounds like monsanto is trying to racketeer”? Where is the proof? By the way, Europe has an effective system to combat monopolies, cartels, unfair competition, etc.
    “The kind of protectionism people want is protectionism against all products that potentially make them ill.” There is a confusion here between protectionism and protection. Europe has a protection system that is effective even against imaginary health risks.
    “Monsanto corn has proved to cause cancer”? Proof? So far, all allegations of negative health effects have been invalidated.
    “Monsanto potatoes”? Unless somebody more familiar with the situation in the USA corrects me on this point, there are no “Monsanto potatoes”. As for the “diabolical consequences on rats”, reference is probably made to the Pusztai affair. His work has not been confirmed, and in fact has been debunked,
    Monsanto “continually batters the public with more twisted angles to impose it’s products on the unwilling”? I for my part have not seen any public battering in France.
    “Masses of ill people blaming gm for their sicknesses and suing”? I am not aware of massive law suits; nor of “masses of ill people”; nor of “ill people blaming gm”. And, Madam, I am closely monitoring the matter.

  25. The only protectionism with gm crops is the neutered produce ensures the protectionism of monsanto’s monopoly of unnatural seed production and pesticide products.

    Neutered produce? I assume you refer to terminator technology (or GURT), in which case you’re wrong because the technology has never been deployed.
    Monopoly of “unnatural seed production” – Monsanto, in the US, has only approximately a 30% market share for seed production in corn, soy etc (I dunno what the veggies share is, presumably lower)

    Europe would be out of it’s mind to become reliant on monsanto for seeds.

    Nobody anywhere is reliant on Monsanto for seeds. So it is really neither here nor there if Europe would be in, or out, of it’s mind to be reliant on anyone for seeds. Accepting GMOs doesn’t lead to reliance on a single company for seeds, that’s quite frankly a bonkers line of thought.

    England is an island

    Someone should, perhaps, tell the Scottish and the Welsh about this. They’ll be shocked. (On the plus side Monsanto is run by a Scottish guy, who is probably well aware of the fact England is no more an island than I am a disembodied leg)

    and we know all too well about food rationing, it was still going on in the early 1950′s.

    One would think then you’d want a source of the best possible seeds such that internal production could keep up with internal demand. Rationing was a thing because the UK couldn’t do this during WW2, and after WW2 the global infrastructure took forever to return things to a state of relative normalcy.

    Why would we want to be reliant on delivery of monsanto neutered seeds?

    Monsanto neutered seeds? Deeply bizarre accusation.

    monsanto corn has proved to cause cancer, and monsanto potatoes have had diabolical consequences on rats

    I’m sure you can provide some links to non-retracted papers then. If it’s proven then I assume the weight of the literature supports your assertion. I wait eagerly. (checking out seminis and de-ruiter seeds it doesn’t appear that Monsanto currently do potatoes, rats, and people, can however enjoy Monsanto tomatoes, eggplant, Melon, Squash, Leeks, Lettuce and some others)

    The kind of protectionism people want is protectionism against all products that potentially make them ill.

    Based on the lack of any evidence you provide on things that might make you ill (GMOs by your assertion here) what you are demanding is to be protected from *everything* as when held to the same standard of evidence *nothing* meets your criteria (unless you’re desperately dishonest about things)

    monsanto doesn’t retreat in shame but instead continually batters the public with more twisted angles

    I knew there was a reason I was required to do training on non-euclidean geometry and eldritch shapes.

    I hope it doesn’t go that far and that the illnesses remain in the unfortunate lab rats.

    Or, back here in the real world, in the imaginations of the people who accept bad science at face value. Unless, of course, you have actual evidence that the scientific community hasn’t laughed at.

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