Here’s How GMO Labels Work in Europe

Supermarkets…that’s where I seem to spend most of my weekends nowadays. I am accompanied by a one-year old who tries to climb out of the cart, and a two-year old who assists us choosing the healthy and nutritious food that should help the family through the hectic working week. Since the kids are there, we started to read a lot more labels: first and foremost the expiry date of course, but also sugar and salt content, extra vitamins or omega-3 oil added or not, what type of additives have been used...

What one rarely finds in a European supermarket is a label that says “produced from genetically modified [name of the organism]”. But if you know where to look, you can come across them: especially corn or soybean oils, or some candy from the US. I like to buy these products, hoping that it helps a little bit to counter the anti-GM sentiments that are prevalent here in Europe.

Contrary to what many people believe, GMOs are not banned in the EU. The import and consumption of around 50 genetically modified GMO events have been approved so far getty_752865607727756780(mostly corn and soy, but also canola, sugarbeet and cotton). Labeling is mandatory, and applies to all GM food/feed products containing ingredients higher than 0.9%, the so-called labeling threshold. However the EU’s push for “free choice for the consumer” has led to situation where there is hardly any choice in practice. GMO labeled products remain rare on the shelves, because supermarkets want to avoid becoming the target of campaigns by anti-GM activist groups.

As a scientist specialized in plant biotechnology, I have always been intrigued by the GM labeling debate. “If you put GM-labeled products on the shelf, people will buy it”, that was the conclusion of academic researchers of an EU project on this topic. And a friend working for a food company has also assured me that “there is no difference in sales between GM-labeled and non-labeled products”. So in conclusion, when we find few GM products on the shelves, it’s not because of a lack of popularity, but because somebody else is making choices on behalf of us.

There is more to be told about labeling actually. While we are making our way through the supermarket, we do see a lot of “GM-free” or “non-GM” advertising. These voluntary labels are part of a marketing strategy and are based on private schemes. Unfortunately they are often misleading. Chicken meat for example labeled as “GM-free” can mean all kinds of things: in Germany it means that the chickens have been raised on a GM soybean diet, and were shifted to non-GM feed 2 months before slaughter. How many consumers are aware of this fact?

So it seems that labeling is not directly leading to more choice or more clarity in the EU. It contributed to the demonization of a safe and useful technology to produce more in a sustainable way. I look at my two young kids and I wonder what their world will look like, and whether our society is making the right choices today for the next generations.

SelfieFilipCnuddeSeptember2015 Filip Cnudde is EU Government Affairs Leader for Dow AgroSciences and lives with his family close to Brussels Belgium. Since his training as a scientists specialized in agricultural biotechnology, he passionately follows the debate on GMOs in the EU.