October 30, 2015 3:37PM

GMOs and the EU Parliament

The European Union (EU) and its member states have had a difficult time dealing with the politics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Despite the fact that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has determined numerous GMO products to be safe, only one currently is allowed to be planted.  MON 810 corn (maize) resists insects, such as the European corn borer.  Although this type of corn is widely grown around the world, it is planted on only 1.5 percent of the land area devoted to corn production in the EU.  The main reason is a decision by the EU to allow individual member states to forbid the planting of crops that have been enhanced through genetic engineering. Member states now banning the planting of GMOs include Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, and Poland. 

Regardless of the EU’s reluctance to allow GMO crops to be grown, importation of GMO soybeans and soybean meal has been a commercial necessity.  In 2014 the EU consumed the protein equivalent of 36 million metric tons of soybeans for livestock feeding.  Roughly 97 percent of those soybeans were imported.  The three largest soybean producing and exporting countries – the United States, Brazil, and Argentina – each devote more than 90 percent of their plantings to GM varieties.  It simply isn’t possible to buy enough non-GMO soybeans in today’s world to meet the protein needs of the EU livestock sector. 

Apparently it also isn’t possible for the European Commission to achieve agreement among member countries to authorize new GMOs for importation as human food or livestock feed.  Since the regulations for considering GMO applications went into effect in 2003, a qualified majority of member states has never agreed to approve a new food or feed product.  When the outcome among member states is “no opinion,” the decision on whether to allow a product containing GMOs to be imported reverts to the Commission.  Perhaps with some reluctance, the Commission has approved the importation of around 50 genetically modified products. 

Not pleased to be in a situation in which opponents of GMOs criticize it every time a new application gets approved, the European Commission proposed in April 2015 to pass the buck and allow individual member countries to ban the importation of GMO foods and feed ingredients that they don’t like.  The EU Parliament, a popularly elected legislative body, voted on Oct. 28 to reject the proposal by a convincing 577-75 margin.  Among the reasons for disapproval are that it would fracture the EU internal market, violate World Trade Organization rules, and impose huge costs on livestock producers. 

It is gratifying to see legislators acting in support of sound science, economic integration, and the rules-based global trading system.  It would be nice to think that the Parliament’s strong rejection of the proposal would mean the end of it.  Not so fast, though.  The Commission still is hoping for an affirmative decision by the European Council, which includes the heads of state of EU member countries.  If the Council decides to approve it, the measure would go back to the Parliament to be considered once again.

Even though this particular proposal does not seem likely to be adopted, the question of how best to regulate GMOs in the EU is far from settled.  In the United States, there has been a general consensus that approved GMOs should be allowed to be marketed, but debate continues on whether they should carry special labeling.  The political process in the EU still is wrestling with the basic question of whether the government should prevent people from purchasing products that are recognized as safe, but are opposed by some members of society.  A libertarian approach would be to ensure that people are free to exercise their rights to buy – or to refrain from buying – whatever they wish.  The EU still has some distance to go to achieve that degree of individual liberty and consumer choice.