On Wednesday the European Commission again delayed a decision on whether European farmers may grow more genetically modified (GM) crops. The commission claimed that more scientific analysis is needed before three new crops can be approved. But curiously, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already twice analyzed the crops and found that they pose no danger to public health.
Divisions seem to have broken out within the commission on how to proceed with GM food. This comes at a time when biotech investors are increasingly exasperated with European procrastination on the issue.
The intra-Commission conflict on GM food is most bizarrely expressed in the open attempts by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas to discredit the EFSA, an agency set up by the Commission in 2002 in order to specifically investigate food safety concerns. By undermining the authority of the EFSA, Dimas is colliding with Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, who has defended the agency. The result is a complete stalemate which may leave the Europe years behind in biotech investment compared to the US and other countries.
Dimas’s hostility to GM food is cheered on by some environmental NGOs, in particular Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace boasts that it orchestrated a campaign of 130,000 emails in order to obstruct the approval of the crops.
These NGOs have virtually no expertise in the area of consumer health research but join Dimas’s ritual attacks on the risk assessments done by the EFSA. It is particularly striking that they try to bring the EFSA into disrepute by implying that the World Health Organization (WHO) is speaking out against GM crops. But here’s what the WHO actually says:
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
European worries about food safety are to a large extent based on the experience of the 1990s when a number of food scandals, in particular BSE or mad cow disease, caused understandable anxiety among consumers. All of these scandals, however, were entirely unrelated to GM food; it is irresponsible to exploit these fears in the current debate on biotechnology.
It is not difficult to see that at bottom the controversy is not so much about health and science but about politics and whose ox is being gored. In the European Council of Ministers, more agrarian-based countries like Greece (Dimas’s home country), Italy, Austria and Poland tend to vote against GM foods while states where traditional farming is not as dominant like the UK and the Netherlands are more open to biotech.
The politicization of the GMO debate is especially damaging at a time of global food price inflation. Future improvements in agricultural productivity will become increasingly necessary and biotech can play an important role in this area. The Commission must not allow pseudo-scientific excuses to stand in the way of serving the interests of the European, and indeed the global, consumer.