European Union Court Rules Against Production of Genetically Modified Honey

The highest court in the European Union, the European Court of Justice, has ruled in favor of a ban on freely selling and producing honey that contains pollen from genetically modified plants in all 27 European Union member states.

As a result, honey from genetically modified pollen will have to be labeled as such, and will have to undergo safety testing before it is sold on the open market. Honey producers must obtain special permission to sell honey produced from genetically modified pollen, regardless of how small an amount it contains. The court, based in the tiny country of Luxembourg, ruled that it makes no difference if the genetically modified pollen was intentionally placed in the honey or if it arrived there unintentionally.

The growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a controversial subject among scientists, environmentalists and food safety advocates. Opponents – largely environmental groups and food safety groups – claim that since GMOs are not proven to be safe for human consumption, they should not be available to the public. GMOs are created by splicing genes in plants through the use of biotechnology. About 30 countries worldwide have bans or restrictions on GMOs, because these products are often not proven safe, but the US Food and Drug Administration has tested many GMOs and has deemed them safe. Eighty-six percent of corn and 93 percent of soy grown in the US are genetically modified.

The EU’s policies on GMOs are stringent, and include policies for informing consumers about GMOs and which foods contain them. The EU reversed this trend of strict GMO rules when, earlier this year, it repealed a ban preventing the import of animal feed containing trace amounts of GMOs. This decision, which was not welcomed by environmentalists, was based on the fact that it is very difficult to track and prevent small amounts of GMOs from filtering into overseas food shipments.

The guidelines make it difficult for American companies to export genetically modified food, seeds and products to Europe, as other parts of the world do not have strict policies governing GMOs. This new ruling will affect honey imported to Europe from all over the world, including China and Argentina, the two largest importers of honey into Europe and two large producers of GMOs. The EU imports 140,000 tons of honey each year, while it produces 200,000 tons within its borders.  

The new court decision comes following a claim by Bavarian beekeepers, whose hives are 500 meters (yards) from an approved genetically modified maize farm. The maize is grown from seeds imported from United States-based company Monsanto, who maintains that their genetically engineered corn is designated as safe for consumption. The German beekeepers claimed that their honey was contaminated by GMOs from Monsanto, and scientific field tests solidified the claim. Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, believe that the German government and Monsanto should be held liable for the loss of sales the Bavarian beekeepers experience as a result of their honey being mandatorily labeled as genetically modified.

The Monsanto maize was modified to produce an insecticide, a protein that naturally occurs in bacteria in the soil. This same protein, from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), is already used by farmers as an insecticide spray. Scientists and opponents of the ban argue that spraying crops with this insecticide is no different than engineering the plants to produce it on their own.

Opponents of the ban assert that the trace amounts of genetically modified pollen are so small that they are unlikely to cause harm if ingested. Agricultural scientists also disagree with the ruling, saying that the claim that GMOs are unsafe has no scientific basis. EU consumer protection spokesman Frédéric Vincent stated that there is “no health risk from honey in the EU” and that it is difficult to regulate GMO contamination because “the contamination is done by the bees themselves. We can’t put GPS tracking on the bees.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/cygnus921/3712117235

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