The science behind genetically modified (GM) food is relatively simple, but for the European Union this is becoming an increasingly complex social, economic, and most of all a political issue. This was well summed up in a recent quote from an American farmer, highlighted in Farm Business. He accused the EU of being selective when it came to science, expecting the United States to buy in, without question, to European science on climate change, while at the same time rejecting science on GM food. Acidly the farmer added, “in our country we call that hypocrisy”.
While this might be an over simplification of a complex issue, GM is becoming an increasing problem for the EU and each attempt to resolve the issues only makes them worse. In a bold gesture, the Commission wants to allow Member States to decide whether or not to import GM ingredients, even those already approved. This is in addition to other recently introduced legislation that allows Member States to decide whether or not to grow GM crops approved in Europe.
The aim with both is to take the heat out of the GM debate by effectively returning decision making to Member States. But what the Commission has done is admit defeat over the GM issue. It has conceded that the EU will never reach a common position and that is a big blow for the Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, who is an advocate of EU-wide solutions for all policies. Instead, over one of the key issues in agriculture the Commission is opting out, effectively telling Member States to do their own thing.
This decision to put political expediency over science is no surprise, given that it was Mr Juncker who decided to dispense with the post of chief scientific adviser. That post was held by Professor Anne Glover from Scotland, who fell foul of green lobby groups and Mr Juncker because she advocated using science as the basis for discussions on GM crops. This didn’t go down well with officials, and the head of the Commission’s own internal scientific research body, the Joint Research Centre, recently dismissed her term as a “difficult experiment”.
Allowing countries to ban the import of GM products is the route to a World Trade Organisation (WTO) hearing over an illegal trade ban, because it is not based on science. The Commission has already been warned of this by four of the big producers of GM crops: the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. This makes it hard for Europe to hold the moral high-ground when others break free trade rules.
If it’s found to have broken the rules it could be politically and financially costly. This is a situation that should never have been allowed to develop. The Commission should have maintained the line that it would base decisions on science alone. It should have been prepared to challenge, through the European Court if necessary, the minority of Member States that disagree. Instead it’s heading into uncharted waters and making the Common Agricultural Policy a lot less common, for the first time since its inception in 1962.
Things were made even worse for the Commission last month by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This represents the world’s major economies and in a report it said there was no risk to humans from animals fed on GM rations. The OECD described this as a “clear conclusion” from thousands of scientific documents.
This confirms that the Commission’s position on GM foods is based on subjective rather than objective criteria, and that will cause it problems in the WTO. Despite being a federalist, Mr Juncker has had to allow Member States to do their own thing, meaning there is no longer an effective role for the Commission in the GM debate. It’s hard to believe that from an economic or political standpoint this will make an existing bad situation better rather than worse.