GM crops and foods in Britain and Europe

GM crops and foods in Britain and Europe section

GM crops enter Britain mainly as animal feed. There is no commercial growing, but there have been experimental trials of GM potatoes, wheat and Camila sativa ("false flax") recent years.

GM crops and food can enter Europe as food, animal feed, or biofuels. GM food and feed must be approved by EU regulators and must be labelled, but meat and dairy products produced from animals fed on GM feed are not required to be labelled. In 2011, the EU decided to allow low levels of unapproved GM crops in animal feed. GM crops can be grown experimentally with approval from national regulators, or commercially if approved by the EU.

Decisions on GM crop cultivation are partly made at EU level but in 2010, the European Commission proposed that approvals could be speeded up if countries were allowed to make national decisions on whether to grow them or not (the "opt out" proposal), allowing some countries to ban commercial cultivation. The new law was adopted in 2015.

Syngenta's RoundUp Ready GA21 maize is the only remaining GM crop in the commercial pipeline for EU cultivation that would be suitable for growing in England or Flanders (Belgium): the areas of northern European countries which grow maize and have not used the opt out. RoundUp Ready crops are controversial for several reasons, including harm to wildlife habitats from blanket spraying with weedkiller and pesticide residues on food. Read about the problems in Chemical and Engineering News.

Finland, Sweden and Estonia have not used the EU opt out, but don't grow maize, so there is nothing in the pipeline suitable for growing there. The other countries which have not opted out - Spain, Portugal, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - already grow small quantities of Monsanto's MON810 maize (a Bt crop, resistant to some pests) for use in animal feed. Most of the cultivated area is in Spain.

The current situation is summarised below.

For more about how GM crops and foods are regulated see the GM crops:Regulation section.

GM foods and feed

Large quantities of GM soya and maize are imported into Europe, including Britain, as animal feed. Meat and dairy products fed on GM animal feed are not labelled as GM-fed in British supermarkets. The EU has also decided to allow GM feed to include trace levels of crops which have no safety approval in Europe (i.e. are unauthorised GM crops). Campaign group GM Freeze has published a list of where to buy non-GM-fed meat, milk and eggs. Food and Water Watch Europe has also published campaign information.

Waitrose continues to require non-GM feed for poultry, eggs and lamb. In April 2013, Tesco, the Co-Op and Marks and Spencer announced they will no longer require poultry to be fed on GM-free feed, following similar decisions by Morrisons (March 2012) and Asda (September 2010). Sainsbury is keeping some product lines fed on non-GM soya, but is dropping others. There is a danger that suppliers will no longer segregate GM and non-GM soya in shipments to Britain if the major retailers do not demand it and easily available sources of non-GM meat and dairy products will be lost. However, organic and pasture-fed meat and dairy products will remain GM-free fed.

Some other countries in Europe (Germany, France, Luxembourg, Austria) have Government-sponsored voluntary labelling schemes for non-GM-fed meat, milk and eggs so that consumers can choose to buy non-GM-fed products. Organic standards also require non-GM feed. In Sweden, GM feed is no longer used at all, due to consumer pressure. In 2012, Turkey announced that GM-fed meat, milk and dairy products would be labelled.

Most British retailers do not sell other GM foods and if they stock them they must be labelled (this is also the case elsewhere in Europe). GM Freeze has produced a list of products it has found here. This includes GM cooking oil which is used in some chip shops and takeaways.

A large percentage of GM maize grown in the US is now used in industrial-scale biofuels (agrofuels) subsidised by the US Government. Biofuels do not have to be labelled as containing GM crops and it is possible that some GM biofuels are entering the EU, including Britain.

Commercial growing

Only two GM crops have been approved for commercial growing in the EU. One is a variety of pest-resistant maize (Bt maize) produced by Monsanto (known as MON810). This is grown mainly in Spain (and in smaller quantities in some other countries) for use in animal feed. Cultivation of MON810 is banned in France, Germany, Greece, Austria, Luxemburg and Hungary.

Another GM crop was approved for cultivation in the EU in 2010: a potato known as the Amflora potato, which has been genetically modified by BASF to produce starch for use in paper-making. It was grown in small quantities in Germany and Sweden in 2011. BASF then withdrew from planting GM crops in Europe in January 2012 and in late 2013 the European Court annulled the authorisation, arguing it had not been granted lawfully.

In 2014, following another court case, the EU considered approving the commercial cultivation of another insect-resistant maize (Bt maize 1507) produced by DuPont.

No GM crops are currently grown commercially in Britain. The Bt maize that is grown in Spain is not suitable for growing here and the pests it is resistant to do not occur in Britain. Attempts to introduce herbicide-tolerant GM crops into Britain have been very controversial, because of the expected harmful effects on wildlife and the likely emergence of superweeds. None of these crops are currently approved for commercial growing.

Field trials

Many experimental field trials of GM crops are conducted in Europe. In Britain, there have been field trials of GM potatoes, GM wheat and GM Camila sativa ("false flax"). In 2019, trials are planned for GM wheat and broccoli at the John Innes Centre's farm just outside Norwich, and for GM camelina sativa ('false flax') by Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire and Suffolk. Find out more about objections to these trials on on the GM Freeze website. Defra lists applications and consents for field trials. There is a public consultation period and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) provides advice to Government.

Government policy

Scotland has a GM-free policy, as does Wales.

In June 2011, the UK Coalition Government outlined its policy on GM crops in its response to the Science and Technology Committee's report on bioengineering. A summary of the policy has been added to the DEFRA website (under the heading Government policy).

In 2012, the GM industry met with ministers to promote the return of GM crops to Britain. In late 2012, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the then Prime Minister David Cameron began to make public statements in support of GM crops and in 2014, Paterson worked with industry to develop an EU proposal to allow GM crops to be fast-tracked into Britain. The aim of the "opt out" proposal is to fast track GM crops into pro-GM countries whilst allowing other EU countries to opt out. The opt out has now been adopted and is being used by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, allowing England to potentially start growing GM crops if they are first approved by the EU (no crops suitable for growing in England have yet been approved). Following the Brexit referendum, the approvals process may of change allowing the UK and/or the devolved administrations to adopt their own policies on GM crops.


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