GM food controversies: What people want and what European Commission does

There is a widespread opposition to genetically modified foods, primarily in EU but even in pro-GM countries like the US. While people demand stringent control and traceability of GM foods, any political will is undermined by the interests of food industries. GM foods still arrive at our plates.

People resist GM foods

The proliferation of Genetically Modified food (GMf) is not only a highly controversial issue, but also a source of friction and dispute especially due to the parallel proliferation of organic food. Currently the only food that is GM-free by default is organic food.

There has been a general opposition to GM food among European consumers

Horizontal Gene Transferring

[1,2,3,4,7,8,9]. The evidence is clear: The Eurobarometer of 2010 [7] showed that the majority of Europeans have a negative attitude towards GM food. Indicatively, a massive 88% feels uneasy with GM food in Greece while only 5% of Cypriots believe that GM food is safe for their health [7].

In all categories concerning GMf, citizens from all European countries show disbelief and distrust in their majority. Most importantly, as shown by the Euro barometer, 65% of all Europeans agrees that the development GM food should be discouraged [7].

Another crucial fact is that the majority of Europeans agree that the development of GM foods is benefiting only some while it harms the majority of the population [7]. There seems to be an increasing understanding among people that GM food serves the profits of agribusinesses and the control of food supply by corporations.

There is a downward trend of public support to GM Food between 1996 and 2010 [4]. The share of Europeans expressing strong support to GM Food has declined to a mere 5% [4]. Although field area of GM Bt maize has been steadily decreasing in Europe since 2007 [5], in Spain it remained steady throughout 2010 [6], despite the 20% drop of Spanish people’s support of GM foods during the last 5 years [4].

The strong opposition to GM foods is informed choice, since Europeans are well-aware of GM foods (84% [7]). That shows that increasing knowledge about GMf did not bring acceptance as proponents of GMf have been arguing; the Eurobarometer showed clearly that a well-informed public rejects GM foods [7] for concerns about health, safety, environmental impacts, economic impacts and damage to developing countries [7].

GMf labelling

According to the ‘Food and Feed Safety’ legislation of the European Commission (EC) [10], the latest regulation concerning GMO Labelling is (EC) 1830/2003. It recognizes the rights of consumer to information and mandatory labelling is enforced for GMf. According to (EC) 1830/2003, in order to allow consumers to make an informed choice the following words should be displayed: “This product contains genetically modified organisms.”

However, there are derogations from the labelling regulations where traces of GM ingredients are below 0,9% threshold levels [11]. While this exemption is related only to “adventitious or technically unavoidable presence” [11], it enables regulatory space for the food industry to use key functional GM ingredients up to that level.

All food or feed products, including those intended directly for processing are subject to the labelling obligation when they consist, contain or are made from GMOs. Only traces of GMOs may be exempt from this obligation if they do not exceed the threshold of 0.9 % and if their presence is adventitious and technically unavoidable. [11]

While GM feed must be labelled when marketed to the farmers (Regulation EC No 767/2009) [10,11], the meat or animal products produced with this GM feed are not required to be labelled [12].

In order to recapitulate: traceability and labelling within EU is obligatory. Products as flours, oils made from GM source have to labelled. However if a food contains up to 0.9% GM ingredients is exempted as well as products produced by GM technology (e.g.  cheese with GM enzymes). Meat and animal productes fed with GM feed are also not labelled.

There are loopholes in the present EU legislation concerning the traceability and labelling of GMf. More importantly there is a discrepancy between what people want and what EU and governments are doing. While there is a mass public opposition to GMf, GMf are reaching our plates in one way or another. If EC wants to hear the voice of European people should become more restrictive towards GMf; instead EC has become more permissive [16].

GMf banned – GMf pushed

Ignoring the European consumers who clearly don’t want GMf, the US food industry, in response to the declining volumes of trade (from $63 million in 1998 to $12.5 million in 2002) [14] filed a protest against EU’s policy of GMf moratorium at the WTO [15, 16]. The argument was that such regulatory treatment of GMf violates free trade, while EU was supporting the view that trade is not really free without informed consent for what is being purchased [14]. As a result of these trade tensions, EU has become more permissive to GMf [16].

Moreover, countries like  Austria, Greece, France and Germany were pressed to lift the bans on GM crops by EC [16]. However, an agreement could not be reached by the EC [17], so France and Greece could continure banning the GM insect-resistant maize MON810 [17,18, 19].

Desire for labels among Americans

US food industry is disturbingly ignoring also their own citizens, who expressed their desire for GM labels by 94% [20]. Another research shows that Americans would like more information on food packaging for the following issues: use of  pesticides (73%), presence of GM ingredients (65%) and organic food (64%) [20]. The Pew research center showed that 55% of US citizens see GM food as “bad” food [14].

Controversies are escalating since there are multiple ‘open scars’ concerning GMf. The principle of ‘coexistence’ of organic, conventional and GM crop farming is highly contentious that essentially undermines our option to consume purely organic foods (genetic pollution etc.). The issue of massive imports of GM feed is another ‘open scar’ that leaves the majority of EU citizens, who are opposed to GMf, unaware  of the fact that they consume foods produced by tones of GM feed.

Food Futures

Concerning the upcoming CAP reform, the emerging issues of nanotechnology and synthetic biology used in foods and the persistent GM topic, food issues may garner unprecedented momentum amidst heated debates allover the EU. The food industry is going to push for favourable legislation again and again, even if the public opinion is clearly against.

That brings us down to the point that we need to safeguard our food and farming ourselves since we know how the industry lobbyists work and how governments are related to corporations. Citizens, consumers and producers are forming regional coalitions all around Europe to declare their areas as GM-free and built whole networks of GM free zones [13]. Whole countries like France, Austria, Greece and Poland are free of GM cultivations. Nevertheless, the products consumed there should be also GM-free certified.

The current trends show that more and more people are disillusioned about the benefits of new technologies. As GM food and agriculture is a further development of industrial, conventional agriculture, the fact that people oppose it may mark also a growing critical stance of EU citizens towards the whole industrial model of agriculture. That is showcased by the proliferation of manifold alternatives.

In order to avoid all the complexities of food technology, the legislative jargon and labelling confusion and greenwashing you can just buy local, organic food and support your local farmers. Even better you can start a garden or farm yourself.

The food industry has been using ever more complex ingredients, using nanotechnology, taste enhancers etc. reducing food down to molecules (and then stuffed with vitamins to sell it as ‘healthy’). We will increasingly have a hard time to recognize what we are eating unless we become responsible for our food ourselves.

[1] GM Compass (2006). Eurobarometer 2006 – GM Food: Europeans Still See More Risks than Benefits. Retrieved on the 4th of January 2012 from: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/news/stories/227.eurobarometer_europeans_biotechnology.html

[2] BBC News (2003). Most Britons ‘oppose GM crops’. the 4th of January 2012 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3134278.stm

[3]. Gaskel et al (2000). Biotechnology and European public opinion.

[4] GM Watch (2010). Eurobarometer – More Europeans opposed to GM food. the 4th of January 2012 from: http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/12660-eurobarometer-more-europeans-opposed-to-gm-food

[5] GM Watch (2010).  GM plants in the EU in 2009: Field area for Bt maize decreases. Retrieved on the 4th of January 2012 from: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/392.gm_maize_cultivation_europe_2009.html

[6] GM Watch (2011). Spain: Bt maize keeps going. Retrieved on 4 the January of 2012 from: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/news/549.docu.html

[7]. Eurobarometer 73.1 (2010). Special Eurobarometer – Biotechnology Report. On request of European Commission.

[8] Honkanen P and Verplanken B (2004). Understanding attitudes towards genetically modified food: the role of values and attitude strength. Journal of Consumer Policy 27: pp. 401–420.

[9] Kayabaci A and Mucan B (2011). An Empirical Study of Consumer Attitudes and Perceptions Toward Genetically Modified Foods (GMF). European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 25, Number 1.

[10]. European Commission (2011). GM food & feed –labelling. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from: http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biotechnology/gmfood/labelling_en.htm

[11] Europa (2011). Traceability and labelling of GMOs. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2011 from:http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/environment/nature_and_biodiversity/l21170_en.htm

[12] Food Standards Agency (2008). GM labelling. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from: http://www.food.gov.uk/gmfoods/gm/gm_labelling

[13] GMO free regions (2010). Maps of GMO-free zones in Europe. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2011 from: http://www.gmo-free-regions.org/gmo-free-regions/maps.html

[14] Wikipedia (2011). International trade of genetically modified foods. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_trade_of_genetically_modified_foods

[15] Mitchell P (2003). Europe angers US with strict GM labeling. Nature Biotechnology 21, 6.

[16] EurActiv (2007). EU GMO ban was illegal, WTO rules. Retrieved on the 5th of January from: http://www.euractiv.com/trade/eu-gmo-ban-illegal-wto-rules/article-155197

[17] Casey J (2009). French and Greek GM bans remain. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from:http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2009/02/french-and-greek-gm-bans-remain/63987.aspx

[18] High Plains/Midwest Agricultural Journal (2009). Greece extends ban on GM corn seed. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from: http://www.hpj.com/archives/2009/jun09/jun22/0528greeceextendsbanUSbiot.cfm

[19] GMO free regions (2010). Greece extends ban on US biotech corn seeds. Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from: http://www.gmo-free-regions.org/gmo-free-regions/greece/gmo-free-news-from-greece/news/en/19955.html

[20] Helen and Aquino (2005). Consumers’ Desire for GM Labels: Is the Devil in the Details? Choices 20 (4). Retrieved on the 5th of January 2012 from: http://www.choicesmagazine.org/2005-4/GMOs/2005-4-01.htm

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