Eight things you should know about GMOs

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remains controversial, which is why the EU has very strict rules on it. Check out our infographic to find out more about GMOs in the EU.

infographic illustration
Find out more about GMOs in the EU in our infographic.

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, 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.

In the same year eight countries banned the cultivation of GMOs on their territory: Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Poland, Hungary, Greece and Italy. It is possible that other countries could follow suit.

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.

In 2013, the EU needed 36 million tonnes of equivalent soybean to feed its livestock; 1.4 out of it was non-GMOs and produced in the EU. The EU is therefore dependent on imports to feed its livestock.

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, MEPs voted against it on 28 October.

Why did the Parliament vote against plans to give countries more powers to ban GMOs?

MEPs rejected the proposal on 28 October, 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 that MEPs have rejected national bans on commercialisation?

Member states have to decide whether to continue negotiations to allow national bans on commercialisation or to let current rules remain in effect. If there is no majority for either option, then the decision has to be taken by the Commission.

For more information, check out the press release.

Are GMOs a threat or an opportunity? The EU has now found a way forward.