|A great deal of scepticism has surrounded genetically modified organisms in Europe, unlike the United States where GM food is considered perfectly normal. In response to this public concern, the EU decided to introduce strict legislation on GMOs. The European Parliament's main contribution to this legislation was to insist on clear labelling, to enable Europe's consumers to choose whether or not to eat GM products.
Genetically modified organisms, and in particular their use in food crops, have been the focus of intense public debate throughout the European Union. Industry argues that GM crops pose little risk and have enormous potential benefits. On the other hand, environmentalists point to a perceived lack of knowledge and understanding of the risks, while consumers have complained that GM products have been foisted upon them and that the labelling system is not transparent and hampers choice.
After imposing a moratorium in 1998 on sales of genetically modified food and the use of genetically modified crops, the EU set out to address consumers' concerns by introducing a range of GMO-related legislation based on the precautionary principle: when in doubt, say no. All this legislation had to be approved by the European Parliament.
First of all, the Commission drafted a directive on sales of GM food products in the shops and the release of GM crops into the natural environment by farmers. During negotiations with national governments, Parliament successfully argued that any GMOs allowed during a trial period in Europe should be registered and details made available to the public. Thus, when GMOs are used for commercial farming purposes, their locations will have to be notified to the authorities and made public. In this directive, which entered into force in 2001, MEPs also called on the Commission to bring forward special legislation on labelling and traceability of GMOs and on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety with reference to GMOs.
Let the consumer decide
The legislation on traceability and labelling was drafted swiftly by the Commission but Parliament was not satisfied with the labelling rules and managed to tighten them up. MEPs opposed the Council's wish to allow precise descriptions of mixtures of GMOs in a single product to be replaced by a vague "declaration of use" by the operator. Products containing GMOs must, insisted MEPs, be described as such, using the words "This product contains genetically modified organisms" or "This product contains genetically modified [name of organism]" on the label and also as part of any display or advertising. This regulation entered into force in November 2003.
Procedures for authorising and supervising food and animal feed containing GMOs were the subject of another regulation that came into force in late 2003. In this case, Parliament pushed through an important amendment allowing Member States to protect conventional non-GM and organic crops from contamination by imposing restrictions on the growing of GM crops. The Commission will have to devise guidelines for Member States on how to put this into practice.
The Commission also brought forward a regulation to implement, with reference to GMOs, the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is designed to help countries assess the risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms. The regulation, agreed in June 2003, establishes a common system of notification and information for crossborder movements of GMOs. Parliament tightened up the regulation by successfully demanding that all exporters should have to await prior written consent before carrying out the first crossborder movement of any GMO intended to be released into the environment.
The existence of all these new EU laws does not automatically lift the GMO moratorium, which some Member States are in any case keen to preserve, but it does make it easier in political terms to bring the moratorium to an end. At the time of writing, the European Commission seems set to approve sales of GM maize, following the failure of Member States to agree to continue the ban.