In 20 years, genetically modified organisms have quickly become a hot button issue. The controversy boils down to groups who are against GMOs in the marketplace, and those who are for it. Biotech companies, the U.S. Government, and many scientists advocate their use, while environmentalists and active citizens have opposed GMOs. Since 1994, GMOs have permeated the agricultural industry. In 2008, 8% of global agricultural lands were used for GM crops. The production of GM crops are concentrated seven countries the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Portugal, and South Africa are responsible for 98% of global production. Despite the rapid development of GMOs in many countries, in other regions of the world the introduction of GMOs has been met with considerable resistance, especially in the European Union.
The biotech industry in the Europe was developing around the same time as the US, but the responses to the industry were very different. In 1987, the EU established a moratorium on the release of GMOs until a risk assessment was conducted, and its potential human health and environmental effects were studied. The European Commission worried that the introduction of GMOs into the environment would upset the natural balance and have evolutionary impacts. In comparison to the US where at the start of the industry the majority was in favor of GMOs, in the EU no country was highly supportive of GMOs.
The EU continued to strictly regulate GMOs, and in 1993 a bill was introduced to label all products containing GMOs. The bill was met with disagreement between the Council of Ministers, those responsible for passing EU laws, and the European Parliament who was in favor. However, their disagreements ended after a mad cow disease outbreak in Europe in the early 90s. Public concern over GMOs grew as their confidence in the food industry shrank. European consumers focused their attention on the potential dangers associated with GMOs. In contrast, the U.S. has not “been subjected to similar risks on such a scale” that would cause them drastically sway their position.
A crucial difference between the EU and the US’s public opinion of GMOs is the knowledge gap between the two. Research has show than Europeans are far more educated on the topic. In 2005 a Eurobarometer poll showed that 80% of Europeans were familiar with GM food. In 2006 majority of Americans had not heard much about the biotech industry and knew very little the industries applications, such as genetic engineering. However, many have criticized the EU for responding to public opinion too fast and not basing their regulation on ‘sound science’.
Historically Europeans have had strong cultural and social connections to food. That strong connection has caused many to view genetically modified foods as unnatural and artificial. Also, many European religious groups have taken a stand against genetic engineering. For example, members of the Scottish Anglican Church are appalled at the process of moving genes, and have called genetic engineering unnatural and have gone so far as to call it cannibalism when animal genes are mixed with plants.
Special interest groups are key players in the regulation of GMOs. Interest groups generally consist of agricultural biotech companies such as Monsanto and Bayer CropSciences. Just last year in 2013 Monsanto announced that they would stop their lobbying efforts for cultivation of GE crops in Europe and would no longer seek new approvals of GE plants. Other major biotech industries Syngenta and Bayer CropSciences also pulled back from the European market. This is a major decision made by these companies considering how much money and effort they put into the U.S. market. In 2013 alone, Monsanto spent almost $7 million on lobbying. However their move was not one that was taken lightly, Ursula Lüttmer-Ouazane, Monsanto Germany Spokeswomen, told the German newspaper Taz that “It is counterproductive to fight against windmills”. Biotech giants realized that strong public opinions against GMOs proved too difficult to overcome, a situation that they have yet to face in the U.S.
Regulation within the EU varies, countries like Greece are on one end of the spectrum and laxer nations are on the other. Greece, Poland, and Switzerland have put a ban on GMOs, including the cultivation importing of them. Labeling is required on all food products that contain GE ingredients in the EU, a stark contrast to the voluntary labeling seen in the U.S. The transatlantic differences are thought to be due to differences in consumer attitudes, regulatory structures, and the decreased influence of interest groups in the EU. Despite America and nations in the EU being among the most developed countries, idealistically and politically they differ, and Europe decided to take the road less travelled by.