A protest against GMOs in the European Parliament. Photo by Euractiv.
Genetically modified (GM) food is more strictly regulated in the European Union than it is in Canada or the United States. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the United States-European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will increase the risk of GM food entering Europe.
In Europe, it is subject to evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority. Their findings are either adopted by the European Commission or passed to the Council of Agriculture Ministers, which has three months to reach a majority for or against the proposed GM product. From there, EU member states can temporarily prohibit the sale of a GMO if they have reason to consider it a risk to human health or the environment. The European Commission must then investigate the case and either reverse the original approval or ask the country to end its ban.
In 2010, Monsanto’s insect resistant MON 810 corn was grown in the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia, but Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg have all banned the use and sale of GM corn. That same year, a GM potato called Amflora was approved for cultivation – for industrial applications – in the EU by the European Commission and was grown in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
The EU has also adopted mandatory labelling for any product that has been genetically modified. It requires food to be labelled if it contains more than 0.9 per cent GM ingredients.
Within Europe, France and Germany are the major opponents of genetically modified foods in Europe. Other countries that have placed bans on the cultivation and sale of genetically modified organisms include Austria, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria and Luxembourg.
In Canada, genetically modified crops and foods are much more common. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada are the regulators of GM foods in Canada. While there is a review process, Health Canada has taken the position that GM foods are just as safe as conventional foods.
The four GM crops that are grown here are canola, corn, soy and sugar beets. Because these are staple crops, GM ingredients are now in most of the processed foods available on Canadian grocery store shelves. GM apples, potatoes and wheat could also be approved.
Food must be labelled in Canada if it is pasteurized, irradiated, or contains possible allergens such as peanuts, but there are no mandatory labelling rules for GM foods. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will inspect a food product and call it ‘GMO-free’ only if it is to be exported to a country that requires such a label.
Canada plants 6 per cent of the global acreage of GM crops while the United States plants 43 per cent. In 2012, 97.5 per cent of the canola crop in Canada was genetically modified. That same year, 93 per cent of soybeans and 88 per cent of corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified.
Free trade’ deals
A primary difference between the European Union and North America with respect to GM food is that the EU employs the precautionary principle and a thorough risk assessment process, whereas regulators in North America assume that GMOs are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GMO counterparts. The precautionary principle and ‘long delays in reviews’ of GM products could be argued in trade terms as unacceptable non-tariff barriers to exports that could be challenged and undermined.
Our European allies have warned that the Sanitary and Phytosanitary committee referenced in the TTIP, as well as the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, will judge whether food safety measures are ‘least trade restrictive’ and ‘equivalent’. They have also pointed out that Canada and the EU have agreed to the ‘shared objective’ of minimizing the disruption to trade from their different GM rules.
Food Secure Canada adds that, according to the pro-GM group CropLife Canada, CETA establishes a biotechnology working group in order to shorten the timelines for the approval of GM crops for cultivation in the EU, strengthen ‘science-based’ regulation and revise the ‘low-level presence’ policy for non-GMO imported commodities.
The Council of Canadians has long opposed GMOs and is committed to working with our European allies to stop the ratification of CETA and the completion of TTIP.
Europeans sound the alarm on CETA and genetically modified food (September 2014 blog)
Tensions over food safety threaten TTIP, and perhaps soon CETA (March 2014 blog)
A primer on genetically modified foods (April 2013 CBC News report)
Understanding GMO (David Suzuki Foundation fact sheet)
GE foods and crops on the market (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network fact sheet)