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 wild, 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 complete genome of existing plants by crossing. Instead they target specific individual genes known to carry desired characteristics, such as insect resistance or drought tolerance, etc. and either modify these or transfer them from one organism to another. This allows the transfer of genetic information also beyond the boundaries of individual species and with that can help to increase genetic diversity.
Genetic modification, therefore, is just one specific technology breeders apply to achieve their goal - improved plant varieties, that meet the needs of farmers and consumers - in the most efficient manner.
GMOs in Europe and the world
Genetic modification is a daily business 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 2016, a 185,1 million hectares (ha) plantings worldwide was reached, an area larger than the totality of the European Union (view infographic). The Top 5 countries planting GM crops are USA, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada.
In Europe, there are four countries growing one GM maize. It is Spain with around 100.000 ha and Portugal, Czech Republic, as well as Slovakia with less than 100.000 ha each. In total, the EU’s planting area is only some 100.000 ha, so just around 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 is feed produced from GM crops!
So today, Europe may itself rarely be growing GM plants – but Europe’s food production chain is to a large extent based and dependent on imports of GM plant products.