The emotionally charged controversy over genetically modified (GM) foods reached the highest level of European bureaucracy today. And a few hours ago, the first wire reports came through with the bad news: Despite widespread objections from the scientific community, France and Greece will remain free to prohibit their farmers from taking advantage of GM plant technology. At least for now.
In the latest chapter of the ongoing battle over GM foods in Europe, a vote of EU governments was split on requiring the two countries to change their policies to reflect the scientific consensus in the rest of Europe. Biotech maize (the only legal GM crop in Europe) is still contraband in France and Greece, even though neither country has presented any convincing evidence that the controversial corn is harmful to anyone. Today’s vote could have overturned those bans.
But as is usually the case in the debate over GM foods, it was crushed by “Frankenfood” political concerns that had little or nothing to do with food safety. The debate was also sidelined by talk of pitting national sovereignty issues against science: The French government endured the embarrassment of defending its GM maize ban last week, after a leaked report from one of its own national food safety agencies showed the corn was perfectly safe.
As a number of British scientists have pointed out in recent months, biotech crops have incredible potential to address global problems such as food shortages, chronic disease, and climate change. And as a Texas State University professor argued in Sunday’s London Times, GM crops should at least be given a fair trial:

Given the potential of these products to reduce the environmental impact of farming, it’s ironic that traditional advocates for sustainable agriculture have successfully campaigned to blacklist GMOs irrespective of their applications. At the least they might treat them as legitimate ethical and scientific matters deserving a fair public hearing. Such a hearing would not only please farmers who were truly concerned about sustainability, but would also give the rest of us a more accurate source of scientific information than the back of a jar.

Despite today’s news, there is still hope for European advocates of technology in agriculture: EU governments are expected to consider the GM crop bans in Austria and Hungary on March 2.