All GM plants used for food or food ingredients, feed, fibre and fuel must undergo a rigorous review of their safety as part of the authorisation procedure before they can be put on the market. In the EU, this task is carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), whose panel of independent scientific experts cooperates closely with national authorities on food safety. Only products that have been deemed safe are allowed to reach the market. The safety of GM crops is deemed on two levels: the way they are produced and their specific new characteristics resulting from genetic modification. The goal is to ensure that the GM product is safe and does not harm humans, animals or the environment.
- Risk assessment is done on a case-by-case and step-by-step basis.
- When the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has completed the environmental, human and animal health safety assessment, its recommendation, if positive, forms the basis of a Draft Decision for approval by the European Commission.
- Post-release monitoring, traceability and labelling: Monitoring plans need to be approved prior to marketing the product. Traceability is ensured by labelling and administrative records throughout the food chain.
- Public information: Throughout the approval process, information is provided to the public.
- Subsidiarity: Even in the European single market, responsibility for some issues may be passed back to Member States, such as the co-existence of GM, non-GM and organic crops.
- Compliance with international trade rules: EU legislation is in line with the international trade requirements of WTO (it is clear, transparent and non discriminatory) and with the trans-boundary movement rules of the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. However, the political nature of the approval process in practice has led to WTO disputes because of trade disruption.
Labelling is mandatory within the EU for all food and feed products consisting of, containing, or obtained from GM plants when this is above 0.9% of that ingredient. This allows consumers to make an informed choice. The 0.9% threshold was determined by officials and has no foundation in any scientific finding or fact. It is important to remember that in many cases the introduced trait in the GM plant simply helps improve the field performance of the crop. For farmers, choice is guaranteed through coexistence measures for organic, GM and conventional crops.
Developing new GM crops requires significant investments of time and resources. Logically, companies must focus their investments mainly in jurisdictions with workable and predictable approval systems. The ban on most GM cultivation in Europe puts European agriculture at a competitive disadvantage compared to agriculture in the Americas, for example, and increases Europe’s import dependency. It has been estimated that European farmers could increase their annual revenues by up to nearly € 1 billion if they were allowed to cultivate GM crops, such as maize, cotton, soybeans, oilseed rape, and sugar beets.
Yes. In Europe, for example, over 10 years of experience with Bt maize in Spain has shown that farmers can and do manage coexistence in practice. A labelling threshold of 0.9% has been set for GM content in conventional and organic crops, as long as growers have demonstrated that they have taken reasonable precautions to prevent inter-mixing. In the vast majority of cases, measured GM content falls well below the 0.9% threshold. If not, labelling is required. As long as this standard can be maintained, coexistence is perfectly possible and presents no problems. In a recent study, insect-resistant GM maize lowered the overall pest pressure, which benefited nearby non-GM maize. Regarding farmer choice, in the U.S., 18 per cent of organic farmers also grow GM crops. Giving farmers a choice allows them to choose the crops that are best for their land.
There may be individual cases of cross-fertilisation, but these are the exception.
In Europe, for example, Spanish farmers have grown GM maize next to non-GM maize for over a decade, and there have been no coexistence-related problems through voluntary schemes.
Spanish farmers employ practical measures based on extensive cooperation. These include: isolation distance and rows, planting near other crops, different flowering dates, cleaning of equipment, traceability and labelling, testing, etc.
We face increasing demand for the world’s finite resources. From 1960 to 2007, the global population grew from 3 billion to over 6.5 billion. Projections for future growth take that number to nearly 9 billion in 2050. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that food production must increase by 70% between now and 2050 if we are to feed the world population.Around the world, the ratio of arable land to population is steadily declining. Between 1960 and 2000, it declined by about 40%, but in developing nations the decline has been fastest. In Africa, for example, the ratio of arable land to population declined by 55% in the same period (FAO Online Statistical Database). This means more food will need to be produced on less land to provide enough food without harming the environment.The FAO’s projections revealed that even before the surge in food prices in 2008 and the global economic crisis in 2009, long-term trends of increasing hunger were already apparent. The FAO estimates that 1.02 billion people were undernourished worldwide in 2009, representing an increase of 178 million from the nearly 842 million in 1990-92, a historic high.The recent food price spikes in 2010 and 2011 have further contributed to hunger around the world, and experts, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs, have called on G8 governments to put their words into action by creating a $22 billion fund for smallholder farmers as agreed in 2008.
GM crops allow farmers to protect and preserve yields from damage from pest and weed pressure. A study by the Joint Research Centre showed that GM maize increased farm income by up to € 122 per hectare, led to higher average yields of 11.8% in an area of heavy insect pressure, and resulted in a reduction in insecticide costs by as much as € 20.04 per hectare. After nine years of commercial cultivation of Bt maize in Europe, there were important yield and net economic benefits at the farm level. In all European countries growing Bt maize, yield gains were reported, ranging from 5-15% up to 25% in heavily infested regions.
Ensuring plentiful and affordable food around the world requires every tool available, including good policies that are put into action, better incomes for farmers, improved irrigation, stable food prices, among many other factors. GM crops’ benefits, like higher yields on smaller areas of land, lower pesticide costs for farmers, and crops that grow better in local conditions, are just one part of the answer.
A recent study (Brookes and Barfoot, 2011) shows how much GM crops have benefited farmers in the rest of the world. Since 1996, farmers globally have gained more than € 44 billion in farm income thanks to GM crops, and 57% of this profit was due to increased yields.Additional reasons apart from higher yields and farm income encourage farmers worldwide to plant GM crops – see “Why are farmers planting GM crops?”