GMO’s in Europe – Greenpeace urges the EU to keep our food safe

Background - 26 November, 2008

1. What is happening on 4 December?

On 4 December 2008, EU Environment ministers will take crucial decisions about the future of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). At the heart of the discussion are the measures that will be taken to reform the EU’s authorisation system for GMOs. 

GMOs pose an unacceptable risk to our food, to human health and the environment, including a major threat to food security as a result of their adverse effects on biodiversity, contamination of conventional crops, agro-companies control of the global seeds market, and heavy handed tactics around GMO patenting rights. Learn more about the Greenpeace briefings: ‘Food security and climate change’ and ‘Who will feed the world?

Greenpeace urges Environment Ministers to agree on a meaningful set of measures that will reform the EU's flawed GMO authorisation system (see question 2).

Inparticular, Greenpeace demands:

  • that the GM risk assessment process is strengthened, to meet the existing EU legal requirements. This means taking all scientific evidence for the long-term effects of GM products for our health and the environment as well as the socio-economic impacts into account.
  • the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is reformed by giving it the necessary scientific expertise to carry out complex environmental and health risk assessments
  • GM contamination of seeds is prevented, to allow the survival of conventional and organic agriculture
  • each member state retains control over its national territory and decides on the use of its land by establishing GMO-free areas

Until fundamental reform is agreed, Greenpeace calls for the suspension of the authorisation system for GMOs. No GMOs should enter the EU until the system is able to reliably assess their safety.

2. What is wrong with the current EU approval system for GMO products?

There is growing scientific evidence of the negative health and environmental impacts of GMOs, and the EU risk assessment process ignores this. A recent scientific study commissioned by the Austrian Ministries for Agriculture and Health found mice fed on a GM maize type approved by the EU, suffered reduced fertility. Mice fed on the GMO maize produced fewer offspring than those fed on non-GMO maize. The research is one of few long-term studies on the effects of GMOs.

Several other peer-reviewed studies point to numerous unexpected effects of GMO cultivation.

Read more about these studies: ‘GMcrops: too many risks to ignore’ and 'Environmentaland health impacts of GMOs: the evidence'

The EU’s approval process breaches EU legal requirements for GMO risk assessment. EU legislation requires both socio-economic impacts and all available scientific research on the impacts of GMOs on human health and the environment to be considered. Yet, currently only the flawed opinions of the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) are considered – link to Greenpeace briefings: ‘EU GMO risk assessment needs reforming’ and 'Flaws in the EU authorisation process for GMOs

As the Austrian study highlights, EFSA is incapable of assessing the potential impacts of GMOs and therefore does not fulfill its legal and scientific requirements. EFSA’s conclusions are based exclusively on data submitted by the companies applying for licenses, and have all been positive to date. Long-term effects of GMOs, effects on non-target organisms, detrimental impacts on biodiversity, diverging scientific opinions and concerns raised by member states, are just some of the crucial evidence EFSA fails to consider.

Changes inagricultural practices, loss of traditional farming knowledge and the implications of contamination are also some of the “legitimate factors” that must be considered during the authorisation of GMOs. Yet, so far the European Commission has ignored these, rubber stamping all of EFSA’s recommendations without question. This means also the Commission contravenes existing EU legal requirements. 

The mandate of EFSA is to protect consumer interests, not those of big business such as Monsanto. EFSA’s GM panel must suspended until it can prove its capable of carrying out the complex environmental and health risk processes necessary to reliably assess the risks posed by GMO crops. And the EU’s approval system must be reformed to comply with EU law, and take all scientific evidence and socio-economic research available into account when regulating GMOs.

3. What has been the approach of the European Commission to reforming its GMO authorisation processes?

EU member states are highly divided over GMO issues. Some countries, such as Austria, Hungary, Greece, Luxembourg, France, Italy and Cyprus, often highlight scientific concerns, the social and economic impacts of GMOs on agriculture and the inadequacy of the EU authorisation system. Others, such as the the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, strongly support the introduction of GMOs and defend business interests that clearly have no regard for science, the EU regulatory system, or public opposition to GMOs.

Pro-GMO countries have found a strong ally in José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. Barroso is heavily pro-GM, and is trying to convince EU member states to speed up GMO authorisations, not improve the risk assessment process. In June Barroso set up a high level political group (the 'Sherpa group') to debate broader political issues concerning GMOs.

Instead of holding open and democratic meetings as the EU Environment Ministers do, the ‘Sherpa group’ meets behind closed doors and its decisions are not made public.

This pressure created by the Sherpa group heightens the risk that in December’s meeting, ministers will only agree on minor 'cosmetic' changes to the current authorisation system. If this happens, it will be clear that ministers are unwilling to address food safety and security issues.

4. What do European citizens think about GMOs?

European citizens have repeatedly expressed their opposition to GMOs. Official polls (see: Eurobarometer 295) that show that on an average nearly 60% of European consumers oppose GM. In Slovenia, Cyprus, Greece, Scandinavia, Germany, France. Latvia and Hungary 70-80% of people are against GMOs. Consumer rejection of GMOs has led to European supermarket shelves mostly free of GMO products.

However,0.119% of the EU’s agricultural land is cultivated with one GMO maize variety (MON810), owned by biotech giant, Monsanto. This GMO maize is used in animal feed. And a significant loophole in EU labelling legislation means products such as milk, eggs and meat coming from animals fed with GMO products are not labelled. This leaves consumers unable to make an informed choice about the food they buy.

5. Aren’t GM products a solution to the food crisis, hunger and climate change?

Despite industry claims to the contrary no GMO crop has ever been modified to increase yields or to resist to climate change. GMOs pose a major threat to food security due to their adverse effects on biodiversity, their continuous contamination of conventional crops, the agro-biotech companies’ control overfood and agriculture through their control of the global seeds market and their heavy-handed tactics surrounding GMO patenting rights (see: ‘Foodsecurity and climate change’ and ‘Who will feed the world’). Our report on the agricultural crisis in Argentina revealed introducing GMOs locked the country into growing commodity crops suchas soya for export. The result was that instead of growing food for themselves, people were farming for international markets and the number of people below the poverty line increased dramatically.

What must be done?

EU decision-makers are ignoring the serious and unpredictable health and environmental risks posed by GMOs.

Greenpeace calls on ministers to agree on a meaningful set of measures to reform the EU’s flawed GMO authorisation system, and demands Barroso and the European Commission to stop blocking this urgently needed process.

You can help! Take action, and tell your government to listen to the will of its citizens and STOP GMOs!