The Changing Landscape of GMO Policy in the EU

While genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a controversial issue in many parts of the world, there is little consensus on the proper regulation of their production and distribution. GMO policy not only varies from country to country, but often between jurisdictions within a single state. In the European Union (EU), the lack of consistency among member states, and even within each state’s constituent regions, underscores the EU’s internal conflicts over agro-biotechnology politics. Understanding the process by which GMO policy has been formed in the EU may shed light on its future policy trajectory in the EU and other regions of the world.

In a recent study, authors Jale Tosun and Susumu Shikano research how different EU regions decided to adopt the Florence Charter. Introduced in 2005, signatories of the charter are designated members of the European Network of GMO-Free Regions, which sets guiding principles for the network of GMO-free regions, and serves as an informal device for signatories to express commitment to GMO-free agriculture.

This study suggests that “policy diffusion” has led different regions to adopt anti-GMO regulations. Policy diffusion, in this context, occurs through four key mechanisms: learning from the success of early adopters, economic competition, imitation to increase social legitimacy, and coercion by a more dominant authority, such as a national government.

Between 2003 and 2014, the number of declared GMO-free EU regions increased from 11 to 95. However, most newly added regions were from countries that already had a signatory region before 2003. To analyze years before 2003, the signatories of the “Brussels Declaration on the Coexistence of GM Crops with Traditional and Organic Farming,” a document that preceded the Florence Charter, but with similar goals to promote GMO-“freeness” within member regions, are used. These pre-Florence signatories include Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. This suggests that more recent adoptions of GMO-freeness occurred within countries where at least one GMO-free region already existed.

The main diffusion mechanism of GMO-freeness in the EU during this period is “learning” from other early adopters. The researchers find a significant positive correlation implying a regional influence of adopting the charter. As the number of regions within a country signing the charter in the previous year increases, so does the likelihood that a new region will sign. The authors speculate that this effect may be due to the perception that “success” for early adopters of a policy is its broad implementation and acceptance, hence success increases as more regions join. This outcome highlights the importance of having successful early adopters if a policy is to be widely embraced.

There is also some evidence that regional GMO-freeness can be influenced by national policy, although not in the direction that the researchers had originally anticipated. Their original hypothesis was that a region’s likelihood of becoming GMO-free would rise if there was no ban already in place at the national level. In these instances, they predicted that a region would sign the Florence Charter as a means to protest national policy. However, observed data refute this original hypothesis—more regions become GMO-free in support of existing national bans, rather than in protest of the absence of national GMO bans.

Additionally, the researchers find that the expansion of GMO-freeness within EU member states occurs predominantly at an intra-state, rather than inter-state, level. Despite the substantial proliferation of GMO-free regions since 2003, the number of EU states that have signed the Florence Charter has remained generally constant. More regions are becoming GMO-free within these states. Regional clusters exert limited influence on the EU’s multi-level polity, where member states are still the key political players. Thus, an understanding is needed of the upward diffusion of regional GMO policy to the state level. The future of the EU’s policy on agro-biotechnology will be critical to defining global agricultural trade relations, as well as the environmental, health, and ethical tenets of GMO usage.

Read more articles about GMO policy in the Chicago Policy Review’s special series.

Article Source:  Tosun, Jale, and Susumu Shikano. “GMO-Free Regions in Europe: An Analysis of Diffusion Patterns,” Journal of Risk Research 2015.

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Nini Gu
Nini ('17) is a staff writer for Science & Technology. She is interested in daydreaming about string theory and poetry.

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