GM Crops: A Global Snapshot

Global area of grown biotech crops have grown consistently since 1996, with some 70 nations allowing for growth, importing or use in 2014. Yet opposition to the technology remains stubbornly high. Below is a breakdown of where crops are grown, what policies are pursued, and which places face opposition from NGOs and public alike.

North America
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, over 90% of soya, corn and cotton grown in the US herbicide resistant and over 80% is insect resistant. The US is the largest growers of commercial GM crops in the world. To commercially produce crops, biotech companies apply for “deregulated status”, which allows planting and distribution of GM crops without USDA interference.

Despite the ubiquity, there’s a growing backlash in the US over GM crop use. Pew Research shows 57% of US citizens believe GM crops are unsafe, and 67% say scientists don’t understand the health effects. This was regardless of ideology. Those with higher levels of education were more evenly divided than less educated groups, who were more likely to think GM crops were unsafe.

Evidence of GM safety (even from the EU’s own science body) hasn’t swayed public opinion, which remains stubbornly against GM crop cultivation.

Ostensibly in line with the precautionary principle, the EU issued an effective moratorium on GM crop import and cultivation in 2003, giving it some of the strictest GM rules in the world. At time of writing, there’s only one GM crop grown in the EU: Bt maize, which was approved back in 1998.

The Council on Foreign Relations claims the US and EU use the precautionary principle to block products entering their markets.  The Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for European Policy Studies have criticised the EU’s use of the precautionary principle as unclear, unaccountable, and often arbitrary. In the eyes of the World Trade Organisation, the moratorium is illegal.

Recently, the EU relaxed its laws. If a crop has been approved by the EU, then individual countries can decide for whether or not to grow it. A safeguard clause allows nations to block GM crop growth if there is evidence that it will harm human health or the environment. This evidence then has to be submitted to the European Commission.

The vote to relax EU restrictions passed in a landslide with cross-party support from Conservatives, Liberals and Social Democrats alike. Green groups, nationalists and the far left opposed the changes.

Disptie this, GM crops have proved quite the headache for the European Commission, with the safeguard clause being abused by member states. German bans on GM maize are scientifically unjustified. They haven’t been overturned. French bans on the same crop were ruled illegal in 2011. It tried again in 2012. They were also illegal.

Poland became the 10th nation to opt out of growing GM crops. The battle for GM crops in Europe continues.

Currently, England doesn’t grow GM crops commercially. The government’s official line is to implement the tech on a case by case basis following scientific assessments, GM food labelling, and accounting for public opinion in using and developing GM technology. New laws passed in January allow for the cultivation of GM crops for animal feed, despite polls showing public scepticism to the technology.

Prior to the 2015 general election, there existed a broad(ish) cross party support for the technology. This cross party consensus is less clear now Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader. An official statement from the Labour Party on GMOs is hard to come by, but Corbyn has voted against the marketing of GM crops in the UK in the past (although his voting record on wider GM policy is more ambiguous). The Lib Dems voting record over the last 15 years or so is distinctly anti-GM; however warmed to the technology over the Coalition era. Again, it is unclear if the progress made in GM support by the Lib Dems has been eroded with the election of Tim Farron, but his past positions (here and here) should give scientifically minded liberals hope that their current stance isn’t changing soon.

Scotland, meanwhile, requested exemption from any EU consent to cultivate GM crops by Westminster, effectively amounting to a GM crop ban. The scientific community shook their collective heads in shame. Individuals (who blatantly disregard concerns for libellous sounding statements) suspect the decision was politically motivated. Statements about “…protecting Scotland’s green image” came up numerous times in the policy announcement. Concerns about science, health or the environment appeared zero (yes, zero) times.

Under EU regulations, countries can only grow GM crops that the EU has approved, so the only one Scotland could grow is Bt maize. Scotland is too cold for commercial maize growth, meaning it has banned a product it is physically incapable of growing. Moreover, livestock can still be fed on imported GM foods. The National Farmers Union (NFU) Scotland points out the difficulty in finding non-GM livestock feed, which undermines the whole “protecting Scotland’s green image” somewhat. The NFU has put pressure on the Scottish Government to reconsider the ban.

Rapidly growing populations in Asia, and rising demand for high quality foods have meant GM crops will likely form a large part of future Asian diets.

China and India are Asia’s two largest producers of GM crops. India’s is exclusively in cotton, while China’s is more widespread. 95% of India’s cotton growth is of GM crops. But it’s picky about which crops are okay. In 2010, it banned the release of a new GM eggplant called Bt brinjal. In 2012 the Indian Supreme Court recommended a 10 year moratorium on GM food crops. Renewed opposition has also risen over India’s GM cotton. This has its roots in reports about farmer suicide rates going up in areas that grow Bt cotton. There isn’t a link between GM crop growth and farmer suicides, cotton yields in India rose after Bt cotton implementation, and the crops are more profitable for farmers. But there we are.

Japan, although it has yet to permit GM crops to be commercially grown on Japanese soil, does allow for the import of GM crops. In the Phillipines, pressure from Greenpeace caused the Supreme Court to strike down the Agricultural Department order authorising the testing, growth, and imports of GM crops, effectively banning GMOs.

Latin and South America
Brazil and Argentina are the 2nd and 3rd largest producers of GM crops in the world after the US. Argentina was one of the first nations to accept the cultivation of GM crops.

Honduras, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica and Columbia all allow for GM crop growth. Venuzuela, following a 2004 referendum, banned their cultivation. Ecuador had it written into its 2008 constitution. The current president, Rafael Correa, regrets this decision.

Africa, by and large, has been open to GM technology. COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) introduced a draft GM policy in 2013 to assess crops and approve their growth in all 19 countries, with each nation deciding whether to grow the crop.

The largest grower of commercial GM crops in COMESA is South Africa. Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria all passed laws to allow for commercial growth of GM crops. Cameroon, Malawi and Uganda approved GM crop trials in 2013. Early studies have made the case that GM banana crops stand to boost yields and reduce poverty in rural areas.

Not all of Africa is pro GM. Zambia banned GM Maize cultivation and import in 2002 in line with the precautionary principle set out in the Cartagena Protocol, with the same shortcomings that befall the EU.  This, and a desire to protect the maize industry which has supported the Zambian economy for close to a century following the collapse of copper, lead the cutting off UN Food Aid to the region during the 2002 famine. Zambia still has an outright ban on GM cultivation, but allows GM food imports. Ostensibly, this is to protect exports to GM-sceptic markets (i.e. Europe). Little evidence for that position exists.

Smaller farms in Zambia approve of the use of GM crops, yet are spoken for rather than heard from. Zambia continues to reject GM crops to support large industry and state subsidies of maize to support food production. Smaller farms continue to suffer as a result.


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