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The Biotech Debate

December 9, 2011

Genetically modified organisms are those whose genome has been manipulated by humans. In agriculture, genes are introduced into the genomes of plants for various purposes: to increase the plant’s resistance to insects or drought, to increase yields or nutritional benefits, etc. Genetically modified foods have become widespread in the American market. According to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, “between 70 percent and 75 percent of all processed foods available in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants.” According to the USDA, 88% of the corn and 94% of the soybeans planted in the U.S. in 2011 were GM varieties. GM crops have also expanded rapidly in Brazil, India, and elsewhere.

Source: USDA

Perhaps because of their sheer prevalence, GM foods have not become a major source of controversy in mainstream debates in the U.S. Europe, however, is home to some of the most intense opposition to the usage and consumption of GM foods. Opponents generally cite health and environmental concerns. Although very few adverse effects associated with consumption of GM foods have been documented, opponents argue that too little research has been conducted to ensure that they are safe. Environmental arguments often cite the potential negative impact on animals and soil. (See here for a useful summary of these arguments.)

To address these concerns, the European Union has enacted a number of regulations and bans on the marketing, cultivation, import, and consumption of GM foods. See here for detailed information on the EU’s policies in this field.  All products containing GM organisms are required to carry labels mentioning this fact. Farmers hoping to cultivate GM crops must gain approval from the European Commission. Brussels gave permission to cultivate a GM potato in 2010, a decision that created controversy even though the potato is not used for human consumption. Some member states have outright bans on GM crops, even though the WTO has ruled that such bans violate free trade.

The EU’s relatively strict rules on GM foods have probably been the main source of friction in its agricultural relations with other countries. The U.S. and several other countries have sued the EU over its restrictions on GM foods at the WTO. Some have argued that the EU’s opposition to GM products hurts farmers in the developing world, where the products are increasingly used. Supporters of the restrictions reply that European policymakers are simply responding to public attitudes, which remain skeptical towards GM technology.

Because of the friction these policies have caused in U.S.-EU relations, they have a direct impact on Hoosier farmers. In 2011, according to the USDA data cited above, 85% of the corn and 96% of the soybeans planted in 2011 in Indiana were GM varieties. As long as the EU’s restrictions on GM foods persists, and as long as American farmers continue to almost exclusively plant GM crops, Indiana farmers will have a difficult time gaining access to the European market.

Protest against GM Foods

Is European opposition to GM products overblown, or is it founded in legitimate concerns? Is the widespread usage of GM foods in the U.S. problematic, or does it reflect the advance of new technologies that should be celebrated and encouraged? How should the EU respond to the rapid spread of GM technologies outside its borders? These are a few of the questions that will like figure prominently in debates over this topic in the near future.

Further reading:

For a defense of GM foods, see Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Food, by Nina V. Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown.

For a critique, see Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, by Jeffrey F. Smith.

For more information on the One State, One World series, please visit http://indianapublicmedia.org/onestateoneworld/.  This episode of One State One World is produced in partnership of WFIU Public Radio and the EU Center at Indiana University with support from the European Union.

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