Unlike America, Europe has traditionally been highly cautious of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – specifically, crops for animal feed and human consumption.
That’s frustrated the multi-national companies that produce them and work to prove they’re safe, pointing to their acceptance in other major crop-producing countries such as Canada and the U.S.
At the same, the ban has delighted anti-technology activists who say 748 million Europeans can’t be wrong, along with some farm groups and organic agriculture supporters who claimed non-GMO crops gave them a distinct marketing advantage.
But now, the script is changing.
Last month the European Commission approved seven genetically modified crops for farmers to grow there. They include three varieties of corn, two varieties of soybeans, one variety of rapeseed and one variety of cotton. It also renewed the authorizations for two corn varieties and one rapeseed crop.
This follows approval in January of five GMO crops (three corn varieties and two soybean varieties) and renewed the authorization for three other GMO corn crops used for food and feed.
Such approvals have been a huge experiment involved GMO introduction in Europe. Some farmers pushed back against them, but many others clamoured to grow GMO crops because they bore some production advantage, such as requiring fewer pesticides.
These farmers also believed not having access to such crops made them less competitive with their counterparts in countries where GMO crops were permitted to grow.
And indeed, European resistance has waned. Anti-GMO consumers seem to have moved on. Most now realize GMOs are not a food safety concern. And although farmers there were restricted from growing GMO crops, they were slowly allowed to import them and feed them to their livestock. So, banning them from being grown there wasn’t really accomplishing much from a consumer perspective.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., concerns are raging not about the safety of GMO crops, but about farmers’ overuse of the herbicides used to control weeds in these crops, and in general, about herbicides’ impact of soil quality.
The big problem is that weeds are developing resistance to popular herbicides. This is not new and it’s not confined to crops – the same principle applies to antibiotic resistance. At some point, a few bacteria or a few seeds will develop the ability to not be affected by whatever is trying to kill them. They then proliferate and new methods are needed to keep them at bay.
This is what happened with GMO crops. They could be sprayed with certain herbicides without being affected like the weeds around them. They’d been engineered to tolerate the particular herbicide, and did it very well.
However, they were so effective that farmers overused them. At first, that didn’t cause problems. But now, huge and troubling populations of resistant weeds are popping up all over.
If there’s any good to come of this, it that it’s forcing agriculture to find new and more sustainable ways to control weeds. Some of these are what are known as old school techniques. They include planting cover crops to keep weeds from growing in the first place, or a return to deep tillage, which lost favour as a widespread practice because it could lead to erosion.
Some of the approaches revolve around developing new herbicides. That’s costly and takes years. But when used properly, herbicides are an important part of a crop protection plan. They just can’t be the entire plan.
And that’s one lesson Europe needs to learn as it opens up to GMOs.