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Room for growth

The European Commission’s plans to allow individual countries a veto on the farming of genetically modified crops, although a compromise, should enable the technology to move forward.

When the two camps on either side of a vitriolic debate unite against you, you are probably doing something right — or something horribly wrong. When it comes to acrimonious arguments over genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe, it is hard to be sure, but a move last week by the European Commission does seem to suggest the former.

Last week’s political compromise, which should see individual countries able to ban the cultivation of GM crops, even if the crops have been approved at a pan-European Union (EU) level, was attacked by both industry and environmental groups. But some scientists involved in developing and testing the crops were cautiously optimistic that years of rancour have at last yielded to a sensible conclusion.

For years, many European crop researchers have despaired over the hostility to growing GM crops in the region. Although other parts of the world — notably, North America — have sown the seeds and reaped the rewards, the EU has dug itself into an ever deeper hole. Last week’s agreement can certainly been seen from two perspectives. National bans that go against the best available evidence about the threat posed by the crops are unfortunate. But, armed with such powers, anti-GM countries should have less incentive to block EU-wide approvals in the first place (see Naturehttp://doi.org/xmq;2014).

In principle, the EU has a perfectly sensible system for approving new GM crops across the continent. Their safety is assessed by the European Food Standards Agency, which draws up a report for the European Commission. The commission produces a decision that can be discussed by member states, which must then make a final decision by majority. If the member states cannot agree, the final decision is made by the commission. This should take months, not years.

Countries should have the right to make decisions that are not based solely on evidence of safety or harm.

Even those only casually familiar with the EU will see the ‘but’ coming here. Faced with opposition to GM organisms from member states such as France, and the staunch support of other countries such as the United Kingdom, the commission has sat on approvals, leaving crops and the companies that developed them to languish in a Brussels limbo for years. Companies such as Monsanto have abandoned the EU entirely as far as GM crops are concerned. Research has undoubtedly suffered.

On 3 December, representatives from EU member states and the European Parliament came to a compromise deal. They plan to pass legislation that will allow individual countries to ban crops — something that has been done in the past, but which is a legal grey area. If this agreement clears certain political hurdles, and with nations having the right to stop the use of GM crops in their fields, subject to various provisions, it is to be hoped that the wheels will begin to turn again on the approval process.

Naturally, not everyone is pleased by compromise. Industry groups want a single, uncomplicated market in which to sell their products. Growing and selling GM crops in a fragmented EU will give them a headache. Their opponents in the GM fight are also displeased. The spokesman for the European Parliament’s Green grouping said that the agreement could turn into a “Trojan horse”, and “could undermine the hand of those wanting to say ‘no’ to GMOs”. The Greenpeace EU Unit said the draft agreement would leave countries that do ban GM organisms open to legal challenges from industry.

Nature has long supported the principle of using GM technology to improve crops (see Nature 497, 5–6; 2013). But it must be acknowledged that a significant proportion of the EU population simply does not want them, for whatever reason. As this journal has also argued, evidence-based policy-making does not always have to side with what the science ‘says’ is true. It seems correct that countries should have the right to make decisions on this issue that are not based solely on evidence of safety or harm, just as they do on, say, recreational-drug use.

If the EU’s politicians can shepherd last week’s agreement into law, at least there will be a way forward. Europe has some highly talented scientists in this field, and they have seen it become increasingly isolated. New technologies are opening up huge opportunities in the genetic engineering of crops, and Europe has already been left behind. But last week’s agreement at least shows a willingness to try to catch up. That politicians are willing to compromise on this issue, rather than ignore it, deserves recognition from all sides.

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Compromise blooms in European GM crop debate 2014-Dec-05

Monsanto drops GM in Europe 2013-Jul-23

Europe should rethink its stance on GM crops 2013-Jun-26

Nature Special: GM crops

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Room for growth. Nature 516, 143 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/516143a

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