The European Union's Reluctance to Embrace GMOs

One of the questions that was frequently asked by our Indiana Ag Leadership class in Europe was why the European Union (EU) has not embraced genetically modified organisms (GMOs) like farmers in the US. The answers were very interesting.

A fact I did not know prior to our recent trip is that many EU countries do allow importation of GMO corn and soybeans from the US. Such products are used as animal feed, even though the same products could not be sold on the shelves for direct human consumption (unless the proper labeling was attached). Thus, milk on the grocery store shelves in EU member states may have come from cows fed GMO corn.

I also learned that in spite of EU's reluctance to embrace GMOs, cultivation of GMO crops is actually allowed in a few places in the EU.

But why the resistant to GMO foods in European Union states? The best answer I heard was from a speaker we questioned at the European Commission in Brussels. He correctly pointed out that "the science is the same on both sides of the Atlantic." The difference comes down to differing morals and ethics. He provided an analogy: the acceptance of RU486--the "morning after pill"--in the US generated a debate on the morality and ethics of using the pill. The science of how the pill works was not central to the debate. GMO's lack of acceptance in many EU countries is similar. The reluctance to accept GMO food is a moral choice by consumers. US biotech companies that spend their energy trying to convince EU consumers that GMO foods are scientifically safe are missing this point. Or so the argument goes.

Another point made by many speakers was that US exporters should listen to consumers in the EU rather than spend time and effort trying to convince EU member states that GMO crops are safe or better. If EU consumers want GMO-free crops, the US should sell them what they want, rather than tell EU consumers they should eat GMO containing foods

A final point about the EU's failure to accept GMOs involved timing. One speaker told us that the first big push by US companies to obtain acceptance of GMOs in the EU came shortly after the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom. At the time, EU consumers became overly cautious about their food, where it came from, and what it contained. In the US, where the foot and mouth epidemic did not occur, no similar alarmism about the contents of food on the supermarket shelves occurred.

Although US corn and soybean growers would love the EU member states to open their doors to GMO crops, one speaker said there is a silver lining for the US. An indirect result of EU reluctance to embrace GMOs is that an entire generation of European scientists have left the EU for US biotech firms.

As trade talks between the EU and US continue, there is no doubt we have not heard the last of this debate.

This article is part 3 of a 6 part series chronicling the Indiana Ag Leadership trip to Northern Europe and Liberia.

Read more at Janzen Ag Law Blog by Todd Janzen, Partner, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP.

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