Lentis/Opposition to GMOs in Europe

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms that have had their genes altered by humans so they exhibit advantageous properties.[1] In agriculture, GMOs take the form of plants that have genetic information added to their genome or otherwise altered to improve the crop. Improvements may include the crop being immune to certain herbicides that are sprayed over fields to kill weeds, or in the case of Golden Rice, to produce an essential nutrient for human development.[2]

Although GMOs have been widely adapted in the United States, opposition to their cultivation has been increasingly observed in European nations. Europeans are more skeptical on the safety of GMOs for human consumption and are worried about their impact on the environment. However, participants are divided and many groups advocate for their acceptance, with Spain being the most pro-GMO nation in Europe.

History of GMOs in EuropeEdit

The cultivation of GMOs was accepted by European nations in the 1990s.[3] But in the twenty-first century, many European countries have imposed bans on growing GMOs within their borders, and in some cases, even on their importation.[4] In 2014, Russia issued a complete ban on sale of all genetically modified organisms.[4] Most of the European Union (EU) followed suit, though with somewhat weaker restrictions, when 19 EU members (17 entire nations and portions of 2 other nations)[5] banned the cultivation of eight new GMO crops.[4] These new bans were a result of an EU law passed in March 2015 that allows member states to ban specific GMOs within their borders, despite the crop being approved by the EU as a whole.[6]

A major exception to the anti-GMO cultivation trend in Europe is the Iberian Peninsula.[7] Spain and Portugal alone produce approximately 95 percent of the GMOs cultivated in the EU.[8] The primary GMO cultivated is an insect-resistant corn, introduced in 1998, which has saved farmers in pesticide costs and boosted production.[7]

Some sociotechnical experts claim that increased opposition to GMOs in Europe versus the rest of the globe is partially a result of Europeans' distrust in science surrounding agriculture and in its regulation by the government.[3] Many hypothesize that part of this distrust stems from the way that the British government handled the mad cow disease outbreak of the 1980s and 1990s.[3] Brandon Mitchener, a Monsanto spokesman, describes the sentiment among Europeans as, “Mad cow disease caused a loss of public confidence in science. You had the British government saying beef was safe, while the EU said the opposite.”[3] Other factors contributing to GMO opposition include concerns over the potential that GMOs have to harm biodiversity.[6]

Opponents and Advocates GMOs in EuropeEdit


Europeans oppose GMOs due to concerns over safety, human health, and the environment, among others.[9] There is also limited trust in the institutions involved in GMO development regarding food safety and agriculture pollution and productivity.[9] Because of this, industrialized agriculture is blamed for deterioration in food quality and damage to the environment.[9] Thus, GMOs are strongly opposed by various non-governmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and France Nature Environnement.

Greenpeace is now the world’s largest environmental non-profit organization.[10] The organization opposes genetic engineering and GMOs, using tactics that include protests and destruction of fields where genetically modified crops are tested.[11] Additionally, through its south Asian chapters, Greenpeace opposes genetically modified golden rice in favor of organic crops. The advocacy also ignores scientific studies and USDA reports showing that organic yield is lagging behind.[11] According to Greenpeace, “GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health… We also oppose all patents on plants, animals and humans."[11]

Another organization, France Nature Environnement, shares the same view as Greenpeace. France Nature Environnement rejects new GMO techniques and suspects that GMOs can threaten food safety.[12] France Nature Environnement’s method of opposing GMOs is similar to Greenpeace: promoting petitions against GMOs and destroying test fields.[12] France Nature Environnement also makes statements that lead the reader into questioning GMOs: “tomorrow they can impose themselves in our fields and on our plates with complete discretion and with complete impunity. Will we let it happen?"[12]


Despite increasing concerns and oppositions, there are some advocates for GMOs in Europe. Spain, for example, currently has the highest adoption rate of Bt maize (a GMO corn crop) in the EU since it was first introduced in 1998.[13] When asked about reasons for adopting the GMO crop, farmers stated that it lowers the risk of maize borer damage, with higher yields and better harvest quality.[13]

Another advocate for GMOs in Europe is Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK.[14] Johnson strongly supports GMOs and believes that they will mitigate the risk of famine.[14] He said as much in one of his speeches: “Let's start now to liberate the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from the anti- genetic modification rules; and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world."[14]

U.S. GMO Policy Compared to that of EuropeEdit

United States' Policy on GMOsEdit

In the US, GMO crops are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which analyzes the safety risks posed to humans and the environment by both the modified gene and the whole organism.[15] The FDA considers most GMOs to be ‘substantially equivalent’ to their conventional counterparts; once a GMO is declared substantially equivalent, it does not require any further approval before cultivation or use in food products.[16] In the US, GMO-containing foods do not have to be labelled unless more than 5% of ingredients come from GMOs. [17] Also, foods that do not contain any genetic material from the GMO, like oil and sugar, do not need to be labelled as GMO foods. [17] Animals may be fed GMO crops, and foods that come from the animal, like eggs and milk, do not need to be labeled as containing GMOs either.[17]

Europe's Policy on GMOsEdit

In Europe, GMOs are much more tightly controlled. The European Commission (EC) must clear the GMO for use, but employs a ‘precautionary principle’ which states, "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment… the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”[18] This means the onus falls to the GMO developer to prepare an application, providing information on the modification made, the risks of the modification (to both humans and the environment), as well as approval from a designated member of their state. [18] Labelling of GMO foods in the EU is stricter than in the US as well; in the EU, any food that contains more than 0.9% GMO ingredients must be labelled, and any GMO-containing product must be traceable to its origin.[18]

Another barrier for GMO use in the EU is the safeguard clause, which can be invoked by any member state.[19] Members can prohibit the cultivation and sale of a certain GMO within their territory if the country feels it may cause more harm than the EC has determined.[19] This has led to a struggle between the EU, which wants to accept new science and appear progressive, and member states that oppose GMOs or think they are unnecessary.[19]

While many member states turn away from GMO crops, there is simply not enough land in Europe to support all who live there.[20] The lack of farmland forces member states to import foods (especially cereal grains like wheat, corn, and rice) from other countries where GMO regulations are less stringent. [20] European countries also often rely on GMO-containing animal feed, of which 30 million tons are imported each year.[20]

Why Do These Regions Differ?Edit

Anti-Monsanto graffiti from a 2018 protest in Lyon, France

One of the main differences to GMO acceptance is climate: US farmland is dry and flat, while European farmland is mixed with woodlands and receives more rainfall.[21] This means European farmers can till land to disrupt weeds, while American farmers rely on chemicals (and are more open to pesticide resistant plants). [21] The US is also a victim of regulatory capture, in which the companies that are to be regulated end up legislating on their own behalf. Monsanto, a dominant agrochemical and GMO production company, has bipartisan support in the US and lobbies for GMO acceptance. Monsanto does not have as much influence in Europe, and does not influence GMO legislation as heavily.[22]


Only time will tell whether cultivation of GMOs will receive widespread acceptance in Europe as it is in the United States. The issue is both a political and technological one, with many unknown factors at play. Though, one thing is certain: in Europe the burden is on the scientists to prove the safety of GMOs, not on opponents to demonstrate that the crops are unsafe.

Future authors could study the GMO policies of a specific European country, or even of a subordinate region within a sovereign state. By studying the regulations of a specific nation or region, the authors can investigate the unique sociotechnical basis behind local legislation.


  1. Oxford University Press (2008). Genetically Modified Organism. (2008). In Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. 10.1093/acref/9780198529170.001.0001
  2. NPR (2013) National Public Radio. In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods. (2013, March 7). NPR.Org. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/03/07/173611461/in-a-grain-of-golden-rice-a-world-of-controversy-over-gmo-foods
  3. a b c d Randolf, E. (2014, July 6). Why does Europe hate genetically modified food? Rappler. https://www.rappler.com/environment/why-does-europe-hate-genetically-modified-food
  4. a b c GLP (n.d.) Genetic Literacy Project. Where are GMO crops and animals approved and banned? (n.d.). Genetic Literacy Project. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/gmo-faq/where-are-gmo-crops-and-animals-approved-and-banned/
  5. GFE (n.d.). GMO-Free Europe. Opt-out monitor. (n.d.). GMO-Free Europe. https://www.gmo-free-regions.org/gmo-free-regions/opt-out.html
  6. a b Reuters (2015). Majority of EU nations seek opt-out from growing GM crops. (2015, October 4). Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-gmo-opt-out-idUSKCN0RY0M320151004
  7. a b Dockrill, P. (2019, June 13). Here’s What Happened in The 21 Years Since GM Crops Were First Planted in Spain. ScienceAlert. https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-happened-in-the-21-years-since-gm-crops-were-first-planted-in-spain
  8. Benítez, I. (2013, March 27). Spain Leads EU in GM Crops, but No One Knows Where They Are. Inter Press Service. http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/spain-leads-the-eu-in-gm-crops-but-no-one-knows-where-they-are/
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  11. a b c GMOs & Toxic Pesticides. (n.d.). Greenpeace USA. Retrieved December 9, 2020, from https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/issues/gmos/
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  14. a b c Berezow, A. (2019, July 29). Boris Johnson, a Pro-GMO Leader in Europe. https://www.acsh.org/news/2019/07/26/boris-johnson-prO-gmo-leader-europe-14184
  15. Fundamentals Archives. (n.d.). GMO FAQs. https://gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org/
  16. U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Crops. FAS. (n.d.). https://fas.org/biosecurity/education/dualuse-agriculture/2.-agricultural-biotechnology/us-regulation-of-genetically-engineered-crops.html
  17. a b c foodnavigator-usa.com. (n.d.). Final GMO labeling rule does not require labeling of highly refined ingredients from GM crops, if no modified genetic material is detectable. Foodnavigator-Usa.Com. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2018/12/20/Final-GMO-labeling-rule-does-not-require-labeling of-highly-rfined-ingredients-from-GM-crops-if-no-modified-genetic-material-is-detectable
  18. a b c Papademetriou, T. (2014, March). Restrictions on Genetically Modified Organisms: European Union | Law Library of Congress [Web page]. https://www.loc.gov/law/help/restrictions-on-gmos/eu.php
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  20. a b c Why does the EU import GMOs? | EuropaBio. (n.d.). https://www.europabio.org/agricultural-biotech/faq/gmos-and-the-european-union/why-does-eu-import-gmos
  21. a b USA Today. (n.d.). Does the Dust Bowl stack up to today’s disasters? USA TODAY. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2012/11/13/dust-bowl-drought/1691507/
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