GMO plants and crops are controversial worldwide - especially so in Europe, where they're strictly regulated. Now, a new study by Danish researchers finds that the regulations aren't justified and may stand in the way of important agricultural innovation.
In a related development, the Danish Council of Ethics this spring released recommendations that include reevaluating Europe's anti-GMO stance and that call on the European Union to change its regulatory system. It's unclear what effect, if any, the council's opinion might have on EU GMO policy.
The study, published in the journal Transgenic Research, was conducted by Andreas Christiansen and Klemens Kappel of the University of Copenhagen and Martin Marchman Andersen of theTechnical University of Denmark.
The study notes that EU rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are so restrictive that it's nearly impossible to get authorization to cultivate a GMO crop in the EU. And even if a GMO is authorized, individual member states of the EU can still ban the crop.
The EU policies are based in part on arguments about the risk and "unnaturalness" of GMO plants, but the arguments don't hold up logically, according to the report.
A 2010 survey found that 70 percent of Europeans agreed that GMO food is "fundamentally unnatural." GMO crops and foods frequently are criticized as unnatural, and mentions of it appear specifically in EU legislation, according to information from the University of Copenhagen.
But Christiansen, one of the three Danish researchers, noted that, "Unnaturalness, firstly, has many different meanings so even though there are cogent arguments that GMOs in some respects are more unnatural than non-GMOs, there are also cogent arguments that many GMOs are just as natural or unnatural as their conventional counterparts."
He and the other researchers said that, in fact, some novel gene editing technologies are much more precise and cause fewer alterations in plants than traditional breeding methods.
The report noted that the desire to promote organic farming is another argument for curbing the use of GMOs. But again, the argument doesn't hold up, Christiansen said.
"Even if we accept that organic farming is superior because it is more sustainable or environmentally friendly, it will be difficult to justify the restrictive policy on GMO, because at least some GMOs are consistent with these aims of organic farming," he said.
"And what's more, current GMOs are at least as good as conventional farming in terms of sustainability, so it would not make sense to impose stricter regulation on GMOs," he said.
The Danish study and Council of Ethics recommendations may be especially noteworthy because Denmark stands out, even in the EU, as being anti-GMO. A 2015 poll found that 55 percent of Danes refuse to eat GMO foods, while new statistics show that Danish consumers lead the world in the proportion of organic food consumed.