The U.S. and EU: Different Approaches
The U.S. and EU: Different Approaches

Disputes over genetically modified crops represent a significant economic and political issue because differences in regulations between the EU and the United States, concerning which GMOs are acceptable for human consumption, have made U.S. exports of agricultural products to Europe more costly and time-consuming.

What regulations exist on GM foods in the United States? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the transport, growth, and propagation of plants. Companies that wish to grow GM plants must apply for permits to conduct field tests of new GM crops or of new varieties of existing GM crops. One factor USDA  considers, before issuing a permit, is whether unmodified versions of the proposed GM crops exist in the area, raising the possibility of an unintended transfer of GM material to unmodified plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) examines GM crops that are engineered to be pest-resistant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires companies to inform it at least 120 days in advance if they intend to market a human or animal food that involves GM material. The FDA reviews information and analysis submitted by a company to make a judgment concerning whether the GM food is as safe as its non-GM counterpart. [Look at for company information and the FDA decisions on these cases.] These FDA regulatory requirements are a substitute for labeling. 

For more information on the different approaches to GMOs by the U.S. and the E.U. please click here: Genetically Modified Organisms Still Source of US-EU Tension.

The Debate over Labeling

The European Commission, the body that makes health- and environment-related regulations for the countries of the EU, is considering regulations that could make it even harder for U.S. exporters to sell foods and agricultural products in the EU. Currently, foods need to be labeled as containing GM material if genetically modified proteins or DNA can be detected in the product. GMOs are defined by the European Commission as any “organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” Under the Commission’s proposed new regulations, labels would be required for any human or animal food that is derived in any way from a GM crop, even if the GM content is so minimal, or so far removed from the final product, that it is no longer detectable. 

The American Medical Association (AMA) has adopted a different position. In recommendations issued in December 2000, the AMA argues that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of GM foods, as a class, and…voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.” Furthermore, according to the AMA, “federal oversight of agricultural biotechnology should continue to be science-based and guided by the characteristics of the plant, its intended use, and the environment into which it is introduced, not the method used to produce it.”

Questions for Discussion

One of the biggest battlegrounds over GMOs is in Africa. While U.S. companies have supported the introduction of GM crops to increase crop yield and the nutritional content of food, European companies and governments have opposed these measures. How would you weigh the trade-off between the possibility for increased food production and the potential these crops might harm the environment and health?

If that dilemma isn’t tricky enough, agro-businesses such as Monsanto and Aventis have patents on the GM crops they have developed and sell their seeds to farmers for a profit. What are the possible implications of this practice? Does it matter whether the farmer lives in Guinea-Bissau or Georgia? Is it any different from businesses selling their non-GM seeds to farmers in developing countries?


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