EU’s Decision on Genetically Modified Corn Brings GMO Debate Back to Spotlight

March 03, 2009 05:00 PM
by Liz Colville
The European Union has upheld Austria and Hungary’s bans on two types of genetically modified corn, as debate over the food’s safety continues.

Growing Biotech Crop Market

Austria and Hungary have refused to grow genetically modified (GM) corn made by two companies—United States-based Monsanto, and Germany-based Bayer AG—“because of safety reasons,” Bloomberg News reported March 2. The European Commission, seeking to grow Europe’s biotech crop industry, attempted to “curb” Austria and Hungary’s ban yesterday. The two countries have opted out of distributing the varieties since the EU permitted them in 1998.

But the European Union sided with the two countries, which are permitted to enact a “safeguard” against the EU’s acceptance of the two GM corn varieties.

“Genetically modified” means that the crop has been enhanced so as to be resistant to killers like insects and weeds. Biotech crops are a $7.5 billion industry in Europe, Bloomberg notes, and include plants such as corn and soy.

Many EU countries disapprove of the Commission’s biotech crop expansion plans. Consumers “worry about risks such as human resistance to antibiotics and the development of ‘superweeds’ that are impervious to herbicides,” Bloomberg reported.

Germany and France have also imposed bans
on one of the corn varieties, Monsanto’s MON810, according to the Associated Press, and they “are also facing scrutiny from the EU Commission.”

France24 reported that the EU’s ruling will “further upset Washington, which has warned Europe against using environmental issues as an excuse for protectionism amid disputes ranging from biotechnology to greenhouse gas emissions.”

The United States, when given the opportunity, has used retaliatory tariffs on European goods. Most recently, former President George W. Bush raised the tariff on Roquefort cheese to more than 300 percent, effectively closing down the French blue-veined cheese’s U.S. market.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) authorized the tariff in both the United States and Canada, in response to the European Union’s continued ban on beef from hormone-treated animals. According to Bloomberg, the WTO allowed the two countries to levy duties on Roquefort and other European imports because the EU has not offered any scientific evidence that hormone-treated beef poses a cancer risk for consumers.

According to the Human Genome Project at the U.S. Department of Energy, one of the concerns about genetic modification is the unknown effects on human health and the environment, but it also has many benefits for farmers and consumers.

The EU imposed a moratorium on GM imports from 1999 to 2003, which was exposed in a case decided by the World Trade Organization in 2006. The moratorium ended in 2004 as the EU enforced stricter “labeling rules and creat[ed] a food agency to screen applications,” Bloomberg noted. That agency is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

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Background: EU Moratorium on GMO Imports

In 2006, the World Trade Organization (WTO) found “the EU, whose consumers are deeply suspicious of GMOs, had applied an effective moratorium on GMO imports between June 1999 and August 2003. Moratoriums are barred under WTO rules.” Reported by the environmental news site PlanetArk, the result of this “long-running” case was an important milestone for the biotech food industry, as it stressed that scientific evidence would have to be the basis for any GMO trade ban; the WTO ruled that the moratorium “was not based on science.”

Opinion & Analysis: Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Foods

EuropaBio, whose mission “is to promote an innovative and dynamic biotechnology-based industry in Europe,” stated in a press release dated March 2 that the EU’s vote “is a political side-step that goes against the wishes of Europe’s farmers who are increasingly demanding the choice to grow biotech crops.” EuropaBio believes that the EU’s stringent regulations on biotech crops should be enough to convince all member states of their validity.

Britain’s Prince Charles, an advocate against GMO foods as well as an organic farmer, stated in November 2008 that “mass development of genetically modified crops risks causing the world’s worst environmental disaster.” Expressing concern for small farmers, who non-GMO advocates believe could be outnumbered by large corporations, the Prince cited examples in India and Australia of negative environmental impact he believes to be from GMO produce.

Reference: Genetically modified foods and organisms; food safety on the Web

The Human Genome Project at the U.S. Department of Energy has a fact sheet, “Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms,” that explains a brief history of GMO use around the world, as well as numerous “benefits” and “controversies” surrounding their use. Benefits of GMO crops include “enhanced taste and quality” and “reduced maturation time.” Controversies include “potential human health impacts, including allergens” and “loss of flora and fauna diversity.”

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Nutrition has a section called “Food Safety” with useful links to help better inform consumers about a variety of food risks.

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