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!