There are many myths and misperceptions surrounding the breeding and cultivation of GMOs, short for Genetically Modified Organisms.
Basically, all our modern, cultivated plants are ‘genetically modified’ when compared to their primitive, natural ancestors. Plant breeding is a constant process of re-combining the genetics of different plants with the aim to develop new and better varieties, with higher yields, improved resistances or other specific desired features. But in today’s political and regulatory context, GMOs and genetic modification refer to a very specific form of method and resulting plants.
By genetic modification, breeders do not randomly recombine the totality of the genome of existing plants by crossing. Instead they target specific individual genes known to carry desired traits, such as insect resistance or draught tolerance, etc. and either modify these or transfer them from one plant to another. This can help to make plant breeding more precise and faster and allows the transfer of genetic information also beyond the boundaries of individual species.
Genetic modification, therefore, is just one specific technology breeders apply to achieve their goal - improved new plants - in the most efficient manner.
GMOs in Europe and the world
Genetic modification is a daily routine all over the world. From pharmaceuticals to enzymes and from food to plants, genetic modification is being used on a very wide scale of products and for many different purposes in almost all countries on our planet. Still, when it comes to the genetic modification of plants, there are marked differences of public perception, policies and markets.
Since their first commercial introduction in the late 90s, the uptake of GM crops has grown at breath-taking speed. In 2015, it is expected that the mark of 200 million hectares (ha) annual plantings worldwide will be surpassed, an area larger than the totality of the European Union.
The main countries planting GM crops are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Pakistan, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay and the USA.
In Europe, there is only one country (Spain) growing one GM plant (maize) at significant levels and. in total, the EU’s planting area is only some 100.000 ha, so just some 0.05% of the total worldwide.
But Europe is far from being ‘GM free’. Today, the EU is the world’s largest importer of agricultural commodities. Specifically as regards animal feed, i.e. high value protein, the EU is strongly depending on imports from Brazil, Argentina and the US – and most of these imports are GM crops!
So today, Europe may not be growing much GM plants – but Europe’s food production chain is to a large extent based and dependent on imports of GM plant products.