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AGRICULTURE Genetically modified crops

What future for GM crops in Europe?

By Dave Keating  -  26.01.2012 / 04:44 CET
The decision by BASF to close down its production of GM crops operations in Europe prompts questions over whether Europe can afford to be a ‘GM-free continent'.
Crop science and crop fiction
 

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Fact file

GM-sceptic Europeans

Last week's announcement by BASF that it is abandoning its production of GM crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance – Europe does not like genetically modified crops.

A 2010 Eurobarometer survey found that 70% of Europeans think that GM food is “fundamentally unnatural”, and 59% say that such food is unsafe for their health. A 2003 government study in the United Kingdom found that only 2% of Britons would be happy to eat GM foods. So-called frankenfood, as the British tabloid press has dubbed them, have had a rough welcome in Europe. In December 2010 one million signatures calling for a ban on GM crops were delivered to the Commission as the first ‘citizens initiative' created by the Lisbon treaty.

But Europeans are virtually alone in this staunch resistance to GM crops. In north and south America, genetically modified crops have been introduced into the food chain without anyone much noticing or caring. A 2006 study by the Pew Research Group showed that Americans remain largely unaware of the existence of GM crops, with only 40% having heard of them and only 26% believing they have eaten them. The majority of Americans say they do not have concerns about GM crops.

Public perception has translated into public policy. The EU's two approvals of GM crops for cultivation do not match the more than 80 in the US and 36 in Brazil. China and India are also approving more GM crops, albeit more cautiously than in the Americas. The European Commission has tried to alleviate member state concerns about the crops by offering to let them opt out of EU authorisation, but the issue is stuck in the Council. Today 10% of the world's arable land is growing GM crops. A report published by Friends of the Earth last year found that less than 0.06% of EU fields contain GM crops.

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas of EuropaBio attributes the better reception of GM crops in the United States to faster movement by the industry. “In the US, the technology was already there when the anti-GM movement came on people's radar,” he says. “In the Americas there's much greater faith in science as a tool for progress, and the food industry in the Americas has been very supportive of science.”

But according to Friends of the Earth, the increased focus in Europe is the result of work by non-governmental organisations to bring the issue to the public's attention. “A lot of European consumers are concerned about the open questions of health with GM crops,” she says. “In north and south America they have no labelling system, and consumers are not aware of what's going on.”

“We cannot ignore the massive opposition in Europe,” says Ladislav Miko, deputy director-general for the food chain in the Commission's health department. “This is why we believe the issue needs more clarity and more public information.”

“People need to be convinced there are benefits for the normal citizen,” he adds. “If they think the benefit is just for farmers and companies, people won't support that.”

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