Early on the morning of 26 July 1999, a group of 30 Greenpeace activists used bolt cutters to access a six-acre GM field trial site at Walnut Tree Farm, near Lyng in Norfolk. They used a tractor-towed mower to cut the maize, while others trampled the crop underfoot before loading it on to the truck.
It was just one of many examples of ‘crop trashing’ deployed by anti-GM protestors across Europe in the 1990s. Four years after the group were arrested at that Norfolk farm, more than 600 public meetings were held across the UK to gather public views on the technology. Only 2% said they would be willing to try a GM food.
With that view reflected across much of the EU bloc, a 2001 directive was introduced that applied a de facto ban to the technology, with only a handful of genetically engineered crops approved in the years since. By 2015, 19 of 27 member states had voted to either partially or fully ban GMOs too. And in 2018, the European Court of Justice extended this to gene edited foods too.
But, as the UK begins to shift its position, it’s a conservative stance that increasingly puts the EU at odds with the rest of the world.
In the US, for instance, the first genetically engineered crops were approved in the late 1990s, and by 2000 a large percentage of US corn and soybean farmers across the Atlantic were growing GMO varieties.
In 2021 Australia also lifted an 18-year moratorium on genetically engineered foods, with GM cotton, canola and safflower crops all approved in the year since. And in South America, Brazil has become the world’s second-largest producer of biotech crops.
So, how much longer can the EU hold on to its precautionary principles?
For Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre, there is increasingly a risk in refusing to budge on, at least, gene editing. “If it’s not accepted in Europe in that very basic form we’ll be non-competitive with all the countries that have approved it,” she says.
There are signs of change. In April this year, the European Commission launched a public consultation on ‘new genomic techniques’, including gene editing, to gather views on whether the current legal framework should be adjusted.
Plus, “there are some quite high-tech EU member states like the Netherlands and Belgium that are desperately trying to push the EU to reconsider its position on gene editing,” says Johnathan Napier of Rothamsted Research. But he’s sceptical as to whether we’ll see any significant changes soon. “The EU has a position on genetic modification and gene editing that I don’t think is going to change any time soon.”
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Can the EU’s stance on genetic engineering last?