Many people think that Europe maintains a strict non-GMO policy. In reality, the European Union imports millions of tonnes of genetically-modified commodity crops, mainly corn and soya, largely used for animal feeds. European livestock farming is entirely dependent on these imports from abroad, and European consumers depend on them for dairy and meat products.
However, European farmers are denied the choice of whether to grow GM crops - irrespective of whether these crops might benefit European farming by allowing the use of fewer and less damaging pesticides, or whether they might improve productivity and lower costs. Indeed, it has been estimated that European farmers lose billions of euros per year because they are stuck with more expensive and inefficient non-GM farming. Instead these benefits accrue to farmers in other countries, whose GM products are then imported into Europe.
Although several GM crops have passed scientific and environmental safety tests performed by the European Food Safety Authority, cultivation approvals have been blocked for more than a decade for political reasons. Many EU countries, such as France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria and others, insist they will never allow GM crops, irrespective of any scientific evidence of their safety or benefits. These anti-GM countries form a majority and so block all EU member states, including those like the UK who would likely permit GM cultivation on their territories, from doing so.
The European Commission and some member states have been trying to fix this impasse, presenting new rules to the European Parliament to allow member states that wish to cultivate scientifically-approved GM crops to do so. Unfortunately the Parliament, under heavy lobbying from anti-GM NGOs, amended the proposed rules to make them unworkable, and to allow countries to ignore all science-based assessment procedures and go straight to permanent legally-enforced GMO bans.
In the meantime, European plant scientists continue to develop promising new GM crops. A public-sector research team across Ireland, the UK and Belgium has developed a blight-resistant potato that would allow a big reduction in fungicide spraying. UK scientists at Rothamsted Research have begun trials on a GM camelina plant that produces omega-3 fish oils and could help save marine biodiversity from overfishing. There are many other equally exciting projects underway.
But none of these new GM products will currently be able to reach farmers. Despite protests from both the scientific community and farming groups, European farmers are still denied access to innovation, and European farming will remain dependent on chemicals and other environmentally-harmful practices. We need people worldwide to defend the principle of access to innovation and to defend the right of farmers across the world - north and south, rich or poor - to choose what crops they wish to grow.