What is GMOs?
The European Union and the United States have recently begun negotiations on a new trade agreement between them. The negotiations raise a controversial question: What international rules should apply to the cultivation and sale of genetically modified food?
- What are genetically modified foods?
- Which countries are most open to genetic modification?
- What are the points of contention related to genetic modification?
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of GMO farming?
For more than two decades, the United States and the European Union have disagreed on the regulation of genetically modified organisms. According to ABBREVIATIONFINDER.ORG, GMOs stands for genetically modified organisms. While the EU has introduced a relatively strict set of rules for the cultivation, import and labeling of GMOs, the US wants genetically modified organisms to be treated essentially like all other foods . The disagreement between the authorities on the two sides of the Atlantic has long slowed the work of adopting international rules and standards for trade in GMOs and labeling of genetically modified food. Now there may be a new movement in the deadlocked discussion of international GMO policy.
The United States and the European Union recently began negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement (TTIP). If the two parties are to be able to agree on a comprehensive trade agreement without too many exceptions and loopholes, the agreement must also include rules for GMOs. Negotiations on the TTIP agreement therefore force the two parties to make a new attempt to reach agreement on a regulatory framework for trade in genetically modified organisms. So far in the negotiations, however, there is little indication that the US and the EU have agreed more on GMO issues.
If the negotiations are nevertheless successful, the result may also be important for the work of creating global rules for the cultivation and trade of genetically modified food. The importance of having good international rules and routines for growing and selling GMOs became clear earlier this year. Then, genetically modified wheat that was not approved for cultivation or sale was discovered on a farm in the United States. Several countries refused for a period afterwards to buy wheat from the United States. It became a problem for several American farmers.
2: What is genetically modified food?
A genetically modified plant has had its genetic material altered using genetic technology . That is, one or more genes are excised from, for example, another plant or a bacterium and pasted into the DNA of the plant to be genetically modified in the laboratory. Plants are genetically modified to give them a specific trait . One of the most common forms of genetic modification of agricultural plants is to insert a gene that makes the plant resistant to a specific pesticide . Farmers can thus remove weeds in their field by spraying with this pesticide, without damaging the crop. The most common types of genetically modified plants (GMOs) used in agriculture are
- “Roundup Ready” plants- plants that have been added to a gene from a soil bacterium. Thus, they can withstand being sprayed with the pesticide glyphosate (which is best known under the brand name Roundup).
- Bt plants- plants that have been given a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis . This gene causes the plants to produce a substance that is toxic to some types of pests. Growing Bt plants can therefore reduce the need to spray the crop with insecticide.
In Norway, no living genetically modified organisms are approved – neither for cultivation nor import. There are also no genetically modified foods that are approved for sale in Norwegian stores. Since the technique of genetically modifying plants has only existed for a little over 30 years, we still know relatively little about the long-term consequences of GMO agriculture.
The cultivation of GMOs is therefore controversial and debated among food producers, researchers, politicians and activists on all continents. The disagreement revolves around, among other things
- about how environmentally friendly genetically modified plants are,
- about how safe they are to eat,
- whether genetic modification will increase or threaten the world’s food production in the long term
- about who will control the world’s food production.
3: Health and environmental risk?
Many people are concerned about possible environmental risks in the areas where GMOs are grown, and about potential health risks for humans and animals that eat genetically modified food. When it comes to the environmental risks of GMO agriculture, one of the main concerns is the emergence of so-called resistant weeds – ie weeds that develop resistance to the pesticide used on GMO plants.
Several cases of pesticide-resistant weeds have been found in GMO crops. There are also several insects that have developed resistance to Bt plants. Such resistance in weeds and pests can create major problems for farmers and lead to increased use of pesticides. Some GMO plants have also begun to spread to areas outside the fields. Pesticide-resistant rapeseed has appeared as a weed in several places in the USA, Canada and Australia.
It is disputed how big the health risks are of eating GMO foods. Much of the research that has been done has not revealed any major health harms from eating genetically modified foods. However, some studies have concluded that there may be health risks associated with eating genetically modified foods over a long period of time. Many believe that this is reason enough to ban the sale of genetically modified foods until more research has been carried out, based on the so-called “precautionary” principle .
4: Benefits of GMO farming?
It is common to assume that climate change will create significant challenges for future agriculture, including more extreme weather and drought. If genetically modified food can still contribute to increased food safety, more efficient food production and increased food production, this will be a significant advantage. Increased food production will in the future be crucial to be able to feed on the world’s population , which is expected to grow from seven to over nine billion by 2050.
So far, there is little evidence that pesticide- and insect-resistant genetically modified plants have increased world food production. However, many hope that a new generation of genetically modified plants will be developed that can withstand, for example, drought and difficult growing conditions better. Such properties in plants can increase the areas where it is possible to grow food.
Efforts are also being made to genetically modify food so that it receives extra nutrients. The so-called “golden rice” rice has been given a gene that causes it to make beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the human body. In addition, progress has been made in developing genetically modified plants that are resistant to diseases that can destroy crops.
Many GMO supporters also claim that genetically modified plants are good for the environment. Farmers can then spray less and use pesticides that are less harmful to the environment. However, official figures from the USA show that the use of pesticides in agriculture decreased in the first years after genetically modified plants came on the market, but gradually began to rise to an even higher level – partly due to the problems with resistant weeds. If GMO plants are to really contribute to a more environmentally friendly agriculture, researchers and farmers must find a solution to, among other things, the resistance problems.
5: Too much power for big companies?
Other issues related to the cultivation of GMOs are also much debated. Not least, many are concerned that large international companies are gaining too much power over world food production. Many fear that this concentration of power could become a threat to the world’s food security. Among other things, most of the seeds sold are produced by a few companies .
Since companies patent their GMO seeds, they can make rules for how the seeds can be used. The decisions these companies make about which products to sell, and the rules they set for how the products can be used, can have a major impact on world food production. One concern is that the power of the big companies means that there is less diversity of agricultural plants. The reduced diversity can make us more vulnerable to, among other things, climate change. It is also not uncommon for the seeds to be sold with contracts that refuse farmers to reuse seed from last year’s crop, so they have to buy new seeds every year.
Many believe it is immoral both to patent natural resources and to deny farmers reuse of the seeds they have sown themselves. The counter-argument of the large seed companies is that the patent rules give them the right to patent genetically modified seeds. The farmers also choose whether they want to buy these seeds, it is emphasized.
Both among supporters and opponents of GMO food, many are worried that large international companies will gain too much power over the world’s food supply. However, there is no agreement on what is the best solution to the problem of concentration of power. Some believe the solution is to ban the patenting of food and secure the farmers’ right to reuse all kinds of seeds. Others argue that the strict regulation of GMO foods in many parts of the world makes the establishment costs too great for small, new companies. This means that they can contribute to the world’s production of GMO seeds being dominated by a few large companies with a lot of money.
6: What are the EU and the US negotiating about?
The purpose of the TTIP negotiations is to remove customs duties and coordinate regulations and standards between the United States and the European Union. If the negotiations succeed, it will create a huge free trade area between the two parties. In 2012, the sum of EU exports to and imports from the US amounted to more than NOK 6,000 billion (the same amount applies to US imports from and exports to the EU).
However, tough negotiations remain in several areas, not least with regard to genetically modified organisms. Issues regarding the cultivation and import of GMO products have previously created several conflicts between the United States and the European Union. Among other things, the USA has complained to the WTO
(World Trade Organization ) because they thought European restrictions on the import of GMOs were illegal trade barriers.
The United States has one of the world’s most GMO – friendly laws and is the world’s largest producer of genetically modified agricultural products. In 2012, 88 percent of corn , 93 percent of soybeans, and 94 percent of cotton grown in the United States were genetically modified. The regulations for GMOs in Europe are far stricter: in the EU, only three genetically modified organisms are approved for cultivation, and only one of them – a variety of maize – is actually cultivated on European soil. In 2012, less than one percent of the EU’s agricultural land was used for genetically modified plants.
Several American biotechnology companies believe that the European regulations are the result of a politicized and populist hysteria without a scientific basis. On the other hand, European GMO critics claim that the weaker US regulation is due to the fact that large and rich biotechnology companies have too much influence on the authorities.
Earlier this year, American Monsanto , the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seeds, gave up its commitment to getting new GMOs approved for cultivation in Europe. This decision was taken by many as further proof that American and European attitudes towards genetically modified organisms are incompatible.
7: Do the US and the EU agree?
There are divergent views on both sides: According to a survey published in the New York Times , 93 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMO foods, while three out of four state that they do not want to eat genetically modified fish. Several US states have started processes to mandate the labeling of GMO products. In the European countries, there are also different attitudes to GMO agriculture. Among other things, the Minister of the Environment in the United Kingdom (Paterson) has recently issued strong support for the use of GMO plants in his own country and in developing countries.
Despite the disagreement within the countries, there is currently little indication that the EU’s or US attitude towards GMOs in the TTIP negotiations will be fundamentally changed from previous negotiations. The question is rather whether the parties have such a great interest in establishing the TTIP agreement that it can make the fronts less steep in GMO issues.
8: What will be the future GMO policy?
In the slightly longer term, developments in Asia, Africa and Latin America may in any case force a new movement in the GMO field, regardless of the TTIP negotiations. Genetically modified plants are now grown on all continents, and the majority of the GMO-producing countries in the world are non-western . This makes GMO issues an important part of trade between many different countries, and may increase the pressure to develop global agreements and standards that all the major GMO producers and importers support.
The Cartagena Protocol , one of the most important agreements for trade in and management of genetically modified organisms, has not yet been signed by three of the world’s four largest GMO producer countries: Argentina, Canada and the United States.
As non-Western countries account for an increasing share of the world’s GMO production, the disagreement between the EU and the US is increasingly only a piece in a more comprehensive puzzle. According to figures from the interest group ISAAA , which works to increase the use of genetic technology in international agriculture, non-western countries accounted for as many as 20 of the 28 countries in the world that grew genetically modified organisms in 2012. Of these 20 countries, several belong to the so-called emerging states. Many predict that this group of countries, which includes China, India and Brazil, will have a greater influence in international politics in the coming decades.
Economically, the shift in power is long overdue. Several of these countries are investing heavily in the development of new GMOs, but are also researching possible health and environmental risks of such products. Most also require the labeling of genetically modified foods sold to consumers. How will the emergence of these new GMO powers affect the work for greater international agreement on the rules for the cultivation and sale of genetically modified organisms?