Chapter 3.9 Genetically modified organisms — Environment in EU at the turn of the century

The genetically modified organisms (GMOs) issue remains beset by scientific uncertainty and political controversy. Modern biotechnology offers opportunities for innovation, and could encourage Europe’s international competitiveness. As new crop plants, GMOs have been released experimentally to the environment since 1985/86, and four commercial food crops have been approved. The EU is some way behind the United States in the commercial introduction of genetically modified crops.

However, public opinion across Europe is sceptical about genetically modified foods, and there is strong support for labelling them, public consultation and more comprehensive regulation and monitoring. Apart from food safety, concerns have been expressed on genetic transfers with native species. The EU has legislation (Directives 90/220 and 97/258) to regulate the release of GMOs – deliberate and accidental – and their safety in food. Most other European countries have either followed the EU approach or adapted existing laws.

EU marketing consent for GMO products takes at least 1-2 years; and none has been approved unanimously so far. Some countries, including Austria and Denmark, have

wanted to include the impacts on agriculture in their assessment of environmental harm, while the European Commission and some Member States, such as the UK and the Netherlands, have tended to define environmental harm more narrowly, restricting risk assessment to the direct effects associated with GMOs. The European Commission published proposals for new legislation in 1996, broadening the risk management strategy to include indirect effects. Safety assessments have also been criticised on the grounds that cumulative impacts are neglected and that small scale trials may not predict performance in the wider environment. These wider aspects are addressed in Norway, with a risk assessment framework which explicitly refers to the justification of ‘need’ and sustainable development. Concerns over the inadequacy of risk assessments has lead to a partial moratorium on some GMO applications in the UK, to a 2 year moratorium in France against the release and placing on the market of genetically modified rapeseed and sugar beet, and to conflict between Member States and the EU over GMO approvals.

There is also a potential conflict between EU legislation and World Trade Organisation rules on free trade, which would prohibit import restrictions on genetically modified products unless there is scientific evidence of a risk to human or environmental safety. At an international level, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) technical guidelines for GMO risk assessment and current EU legislation are consistent. As part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a Biosafety Protocol is now being negotiated: this is likely to require that transboundary movement of GMOs be subject to prior informed consent, with risk assessment based on scientific parameters.

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