8 things you should know about GMOs in Europe

A draft EU law that would enable any Member State to restrict or prohibit the sale and use of EU-approved GMO food or feed on its territory was opposed by Environment Committee MEPs on Tuesday (October 13).

Since April 2015, EU countries have been able to ban the cultivation of GMOs on their territory, but should they have the same power regarding their commercialisation?

The European Parliament’s Environment committee has rejected plans for this, fearing it could lead to problems.

Here are eight things you should know about GMOs according to the European Parliament:

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. They are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially modified in order to give it a new property.

For example, this could be to make it easier for a plant to resist a disease, insects or drought or to increase crop productivity.

Which are the main crops involved?

  • Maize;
  • Cotton;
  • Soybean;
  • Oilseed rape; and,
  • Sugar beet.

Are GMOs allowed in the EU?

GMOs can only be cultivated or sold for consumption in the EU after they have been authorised at the EU level. This process includes a scientific risk assessment.

Only one GMO has been approved for cultivation in the EU so far. Maize MON 810 was authorised for cultivation in 1998, but this authorisation has now expired and is waiting for renewal.

In 2013 it was mostly cultivated in Spain and on a small scale in Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. Currently, there are eight applications for approval pending, including the renewal of maize MON 810.

So far 58 GMOs have been authorised for consumption in food and feed in the EU. They include maize, cotton, soybean, oilseed rape and sugar beet and another 58 are waiting for approval.

Are people in the EU already consuming GMOs?

Most of the GMOs authorised in the EU are used to feed farm animals, but some imported food might also contain them.

The EU food labelling system obliges companies to indicate if the food or feed they produce contains GMOs. This applies when GMOs account for at least 0.9% of the food or the feed.

Companies also have the option to indicate on a label that their product does not contain GMOs.

Who is responsible for approving GMOs in the EU?

It depends if we are talking about cultivating GMOs or about including them in food products.

When it comes to cultivation, the authorisation is given at EU level, but member states have the last word. Since April 2015, countries can decide to ban the cultivation on their territory at any time during the authorisation procedure or even after authorisation has been granted.

Countries can justify the ban for a variety of reasons and not, as was the case before, exclusively on the grounds of health or environment risks.

However, for commercialisation, EU countries still have to abide by the decision at EU level.

What is in the new proposal concerning GMOs?

The European Commission is proposing to give member states the power to ban the commercialisation of GMOs on their territory, even if they have already been approved at EU level. However, Parliament’s environment and food safety committee voted against it on 13 October.

Why did Parliament’s Environment Committee vote against plans to give countries more powers to ban GMOs?

Parliament’s Environment and Food Safety Committee rejected the proposal on October 13, because they fear it could prove unworkable and lead to border controls between countries that disagree on GMOs, which would affect the internal market.

What will happen now with the proposal to give EU countries the final say on the sale of GMOs in their country?

All MEPs will now vote on the proposal during the plenary session in Strasbourg later this month. If they also reject the proposal, then the current rules remain in effect and a majority of member states can vote to approve or ban the commercialisation across the EU.

If there is no majority for either option, then the decision has to be taken by the Commission.

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