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An opinion piece by Matt Ridley in The Times (UK) alerted me to the European Union’s imminent decision to allow member states to adopt their own rules regarding the planting and cultivation of genetically modified crops. The measure was approved overwhelmingly by the EU Parliament today. The talking points released by the EU emphasize that a member country can ban a GM crop even if it has been approved by the EU’s food safety authority. And the rules state:

While cultivation is recognised to be an issue with strong national or local dimensions, current EU legislation on GMOs offers limited possibilities to Member State to decide on GMO cultivation on their territory.

It is likely that the additional flexibility for members to impose their own bans will lead to more flexibility in the process of authorizing new varieties at the centralized level. Contrary to much of the reporting offered by Greens, who would have us believe that GE crops are all but prohibited in Europe, there are many varieties of GE crops that are already authorized by the EU. If you don’t believe it, this database may convince you.

Ridley provides an interesting account of the politicking that led to the legislation. Among EU members, the UK and Spain are the most eager to expand cultivation of GE crops, while other nations supported the measure since it seems to enhance their own sovereignty on an important agricultural issue. Nevertheless, critics of the legislation complain that it is poorly worded. Greens are unhappy because they see it as an entry for GE crops through the “back-door.” One biotech group complained that the law allows members to ban GE crops on “non-scientific grounds.”

Ridley also emphasizes some changes in thinking among traditional opponents of GE in Europe. The Greens are aware that the use of pesticides might be curtailed by the use of GE varieties. The yield-challenged organic movement also has much to gain via adoption of GE crops, and Ridley points out the inherent fallacy at the root of their past opposition:

Ironically, the organic movement happily uses crops whose genetic material has been modified in a much less careful way — by gamma rays or chemical mutagens — for these are categorised as ‘conventional’ crops and lightly regulated. Golden Promise barley, used by organic brewers, for example, was made in a nuclear reactor.

Federalism is a good way to promote the union of sovereign entities with disparate views on a range of issues, such as agricultural practices. However, sustaining a federalist approach requires a determination to restrain central government bureaucrats and busy-bodies who cannot control their urges to control others. For the good of humanity, let’s hope the EU can succeed in this instance.