Last Tuesday the EU parliament voted for a piece of legislation that grants all the states in the EU more freedom over the way they deal with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Member states will in fact henceforth be allowed to ban or approve the cultivation of GM crops in their territories.
GMOs cultivation is perhaps one of the most politically charged debates today, with companies like Monsanto being in the spotlight for their controversial methods of cultivation, investment, and production of genetically modified crops.
In Europe, in 2001 it was decided that no GM crops could be grown, with the exception of MON 810, a type of maize, but on 13th January, the EU parliament approved a series of amendments to the existing law about the use of GMOs. As a result, European countries will now have more flexibility whether or not they use GM crops or implement them in their own agricultural production.
One the one hand, this means that governments have the possibility and the power to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs in their territories entirely. And, if they decide to cultivate them, they will have to make sure that these crops will not contaminate other products or cultivations, following strict procedures and guidelines set by an independent body.
On the other hand, environmentalists and associations like Greenpeace criticized these new measures for several reasons. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle, Marco Contiero, the Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director, affirmed that this move is controversial as it grants private companies “a formal role in the process of banning or restricting GM cultivation”, and provides them “with a very relevant avenue to influence governments”.
Furthermore, member states will not be able to ban GM crops if their reasons do not resonate with the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) lines of judgment. This means that nations cannot ban GM crops based on singular national concerns or damage if these have not been taken into consideration by EFSA. Local evidence of environmental harm, for example, which is considered one of the strongest reasons behind the ban of GM crops, might not be taken into account. Moreover, the ban only affects the cultivation. What about the circulation of those same GMOs in the territory? Ultimately, these regulations do not even affect the GMOs that might be used in animal feed, which thus leaves consumers at their disposal anyway.
On their blog, Monsanto Europe affirmed that this move is “a tragedy, both for Europe and for the signal that Europe’s anti-scientific hysteria about supposed ‘Frankenfoods’ is sending the rest of the world.” Following along these lines, in an interview with Mother Jones, the neurologist Dr Steven Novella argued that the genetic modification of crops does not really pose any dangers and that it is “not the panacea, nor is it a menace; it’s just one more tool that has to be used intelligently.” Yet, how do we use them more intelligently? True, GM cultivations, he continues, are more regulated than other crops created with modifications methods, but the same could be said of sustainable and/or organic cultivations, which have rigid controls, too.
A real tragedy would be to have private companies dominate the agricultural production, dictating what we should or should not eat. What seems to be ignored here is the attention that consumers need to pay to the way companies seek to produce, export, and treat the food that ends up on their plate. It is also equally important to give citizens the opportunity to make an informed choice by at least requiring the compulsory labelling all products that contain GMOs, which is currently not happening for products that do not contain GM in proportion superior to the 0.9%. Because ultimately, that same flexibility allowed to governments should be granted to citizens, to determine by ourselves what we want or do not want to put in our bodies.