Parliament backs opt-out for European member states while GMOs with health benefits have large market potential
New legislation to allow EU member states to restrict or ban the cultivation of crops containing genetically modified organisms on their own territory. Genetically modified crops with an increased vitamin and/or mineral content have large potential to improve public health, but their availability for consumers is still hampered, as a result of the negative public opinion
New legislation to allow EU member states to restrict or ban the cultivation of crops containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on their own territory, even if this is allowed at EU level, was passed by MEPs on Tuesday. The legislation, informally agreed by Parliament and Council in December, was originally tabled in 2010 but was then deadlocked for four years due to disagreement between pro- and anti-GMO member states.
The new rules would allow member states to ban GMOs on environmental policy grounds other than the risks to health and the environment already assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Member states could also ban GMO crops on other grounds, such as town and country planning requirements, socio-economic impact, avoiding the unintended presence of GMOs in other products and farm policy objectives. Bans could also include groups of GMOs designated by crop or trait.
Before a member state may adopt such measures, the legislation provides for a procedure enabling the GMO crop company to consent to such restrictions on its marketing authorisation. However, if the company disagrees, the member state may impose a ban unilaterally.
MON810 maize is currently the only GM crop cultivated in the EU. The “Amflora” GM potato was banned by the EU General Court in 2013 after an initial green light from the European Commission.
"This agreement will ensure more flexibility for member states who wish to restrict the cultivation of the GMOs in their territory. It will, moreover, signpost a debate which is far from over between pro- and anti-GMO positions” said Frédérique Ries (ALDE, BE), who is steering the legislation through Parliament.
“As to what comes next, I place my trust in Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's formal pledge to strengthen the democratic process on GMOs in Europe and ensure that research is genuinely independent", she added. The agreement negotiated with EU ministers was approved by 480 votes to 159, with 58 abstentions.
Over the last years, various GM crops with health benefits have been developed in which genes, mostly originating from other organisms, have been added. Notable examples include rice enriched with pro-vitamin A (also known as ‘Golden Rice’) and folate-enriched rice, developed at Ghent University.
15 years after the development of 'Golden Rice', which was the first GMO with health benefits, the developers of such transgenic biofortified crops have little reason to celebrate. To date, none of these GMOs are approved for cultivation, unlike GMOs with agronomic traits. Despite this, 6 major staple crops have been successfully biofortified with one or more vitamins or minerals. Clearly, these GMOs with health benefits have great potential.
In a recent study from Ghent University, published in the renowned journal Nature Biotechnology, not only the impact of GM crops on human health, but also their market potential was convincingly demonstrated. This research is part of a collaboration of 3 different UGent research units, which up until now resulted in two publications in the same journal.
Research at UGent reveals that consumers are willing to pay more for GMOs with health benefits, with premiums ranging from 20% to 70%. This differs from GMOs with farmer benefits, which are only accepted by consumers when they are offered at a discount.
Especially in regions, such as China and Brazil – which are considered as key target markets for these nutritionally improved crops – , where a large part of the population suffers from nutrient deficiencies, the potential market share of these GMOs is high.
Improving public health
Several studies show that these GMOs have positive impacts on human health. As expected, the enhancement of multiple micronutrients in the same crop by genetic modification, yields the best results. This method generates aggregated health benefits at a relatively low cost.
Valuable alternative to tackle malnutrition
Although GMOs with health benefits are not a panacea for eliminating malnutrition, they offer a complementary and cost-effective alternative when other strategies are less successful or feasible.