A New Era for GM Crop Regulation in Europe?

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Before the holiday season, we published a short piece in The Conversation on the new situation concerning the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. The article was titled “Why Europe will let member states opt out of GM crops” and described how the new European Directive 2015/412 now gives Member States more freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to allow the cultivation of GM crops within their territories.

While we have been following (and critiquing) the development of this new Directive over the past 5 years that it has been under negotiation, we were inspired to write this piece after reading an article by Mark Lynas published in the New York Times, which we felt seriously misrepresented the new Directive and what it opens for. We therefore wanted to write an article that accurately described the new rules in a way that was accessible for a general audience, and particularly those in the US that may not be so familiar with the European regulatory system.

This turned out to be quite a challenging task. Trying to accurately convey the nuances of a rather complicated piece of legislation, developed within the even more complicated history of European debates and disagreements over GMOs, in a style that presented some of the new legislation’s strengths and weaknesses and made sense for a lay audience, was certainly not easy. It was especially not easy since our section editor at The Conversation had given us a limit of just 1000 words to work with.

Through offering comments on our text, the editor also regularly reminded us of just how little a US audience may be expected to know and understand of the European regulatory system, especially given how different the two systems are in their foundational beliefs and approaches. For example, the US system is based on a product  based approach and the idea that GM crops and conventional crops are substantially equivalent, with no federal requirements for traceability or labelling. The European system, however, regulates on a process-based approach, meaning any crop created using modern biotechnology has to pass through a specific regulatory system, and there is a committment to freedom of consumer choice that requires GMOs to be detectable and traceable throughout the agri-food system, e.g. through measures such as labelling schemes. (If you are interested in more detailed analyses of US-EU differences over GMO regulation you can read some different views here, here or here).

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We still have some serious questions and concerns regarding the new Directive and how it may play out in practice. Including, for example: the power granted to biotechnology corporations to deny a Member State request to have their territory excluded from GM crop cultivation, the inability to use scientific grounds and alternative scientific assessments as a reason for opting out, and the questionable ability of non-scientific reasoning to hold firm if challenged in international trade courts. However, we were all quite surprised at how when writing this piece for a US audience, the Directive emerged as a much more postive development than we had expected.

The Directive arguably breaks a long held dictatorship of science and opens for a much more democratic approach to decision-making on GM crop cultivation – an approach in which questions of acceptability are not simply reduced to a narrow concern with “Is it safe?” but can also expand to include questions such as: “Is it sustainable?”, “Is it socially desirable?”, “Is it ethical?” and “Is it in line with broader policy objectives?”. This allows Member States to consider and balance assessments of health and safety concerns with assessments of other types of concerns, policy objectives and socio-economic impacts. Furthermore, the new directive allows Member States to make these assessments on a case by case basis, allowing them to accept some GM crops (e.g. those modified to resist a certain disease) while rejecting others (e.g. those tolerating ever higher levels of applied herbicides).

While it will be important to follow how engagement with the new Directive takes place over the months and years to come, we see this opening up for a more flexible approach to GM regulation in Europe, and particularly its recognition of the legitimacy of reasoning based on both scientific and social grounds, as a largely positive move. We are wondering how others out there feel about it though, so if you are not familiar with the new Directive, read our short piece and let us know your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “A New Era for GM Crop Regulation in Europe?

  1. Jack Heinemann says:

    I’m curious what you consider as the key difference between the ‘scientific’ and ‘social’ grounds of reasoning (e.g., as in the phrase “the legitimacy of reasoning based on both scientific and social grounds”). Is this terminology reflecting just different sources of content (e.g., biological vs. economic data)? Or is it implying that the way content ‘facts’ are used is different in the reasoning process?

    If the former, then I can see the Directive challenging the concentration of power held by those who reason from a source of facts that are accessed only by an elite (those with sufficient resources to do ‘science’). However, if the latter, then I see a potential perpetuation of elitism in the regulatory process and a very small change in democratic access because s/he who holds the keys to the jargon and technical language, be it ‘scientific’ or ‘social’, will command the reasoning.
    Your thoughts?

    • fern says:

      Thanks for your comment Jack!
      The choice of language here is difficult and something we have also struggled with. Indeed you might say everything seems a little too binary to be useful…

      In the original piece in The Conversation though, we deliberately chose not to use the language of “scientific” and “non-scientific” grounds because we found it implied that information on, for example, socio-economic impacts would be “non-scientific”, which is of course not necessarily true since it may also involve data arrived at by experts through a specific methodological process that can be understood as (social) science.

      Indeed in the phrasing “legitimacy of reasoning based on both scientific and social grounds” we actually mean several things.

      The first is indeed as you point out, the way the Directive opens for different sources for “facts” – e.g. allowing economic as well as biological data to play a legitimate role in decision-making reasoning. While this broadens the type of information that can be used, the data remains something generated by particular experts and there is therefore a danger that elitism may continue in the regulatory process.
      However, the phrasing can also be taken to refer to the way in which elected politicians now arguably have more freedom to take decisions on a range of grounds rather than having the decisions largely dictated to them by an assessment performed by (natural) scientists. This still raises problems and questions concerning the relevance of and relationship between deliberative and representative forms of democracy though…
      Finally, the phrase can also be taken to mean allowing “values” as well as “facts” (to the extent that these can be separated) to also play a legitimate role in decision-making reasoning. For example, the Directive opens for ‘policy objectives’ as relevant grounds and this allows visions, goals, desires and values to be given increased weight.

      Therefore what we mean is that (seen in a positive light) the Directive has arguably: a) expanded the database of expert generated information that can be used so that it now includes information from the social as well as natural sciences; b) opened for democratically elected politicians to have more power over decision-making within their territories; and c) acknowledged that values together with facts can play a legitimate role in the reasoning in decision-making on the cultivation of GMOs.

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