How are GM crops regulated?

GM crops cannot be grown, either for experiments or commercial farming, without approval by the appropriate regulatory agency, in the UK by DEFRA. The movement of GM crops or food between countries is also regulated. Details of this process vary from country to country but the same objectives underlie all regulation; that the novel GM crop is safe for human or animal health and the environment.

All applications to develop a GM crop within the EU are assessed using the same regulatory system. This involves the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the regulatory authorities of independent member states and, finally, approval by the central European authorities in Brussels. A recent change has given final responsibility for local implementation back to member states, who can now decide whether to opt out from cultivation of a GM crop that was authorized at the EU level.  The assessment covers details supplied by the applicant, including the particular GM method used, information about the inserted DNA and characteristics of the plant, and results from animal feeding trials, where appropriate.

Applications also include an environmental assessment, which examines the possible interactions between the GM crop and factors like soil and other organisms in the ecosystem. 

Since 1992, the EU has approved 2404 experimental GM field trials for research. In comparison, over the same time there have been 18,381 GM trials for research in the USA. In crops for commercial use, there is only one GM crop, an insect resistant maize variety, that is grown commercially in the EU and no GM crops have yet been approved for human consumption as fresh fruit or vegetable. In comparison there have been 117 commercial releases in the USA since 1992 and in other countries outside Europe. For example, since 1995 there have been 3 permits for commercial releases in China, 41 in Brazil and 93 in Canada. Regulatory systems differ around the world. While EU regulations focus on the technique used to modify the crop, other systems, like the Canadian system, focus on the characteristics of the crop produced. In other regions, including many countries in Africa, biosafety regulation is still being developed. 

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Page last updated: May 2016

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