First, a quick primer. GMO food has been tinkered with on a cellular level in order to improve on nature’s design. Think: apples that don’t go brown, pest-resistant corn, tomatoes with a longer shelf life. GMOs are distinct from plant breeding and hybrids because of how fundamentally they are changed: Their very DNA is manipulated and modified.
There have been no proven health drawbacks to the altered foods, which have been legal in the U.S. since 1994, but it’s an unsettling process to many. You’ve heard the term Frankenfood? A vocal core of food activists perceive GMOs as a scary disruption of nature—orchestrated by Monsanto—with questionable benefits to consumers. Proponents, however, see GMOs as a crowning achievement in science, with the ability to feed our ballooning population.
Outside the U.S., many governments have followed the “precautionary principle,” a risk management strategy that requires scientific consensus on whether something is harmful. In essence, it puts the burden of proof on GMO proponents to show these foods are safe beyond a reasonable doubt.
This principle has been employed in a whole range of circumstances around the globe. Take Haiti, for instance. After the brutal earthquakes in 2010, Monsanto announced it would donate tons of its ever-so-controversial Roundup-ready corn seeds. Haitian farmers rejected the donation, even after Monsanto back-pedaled and said they would send non-GM seed. Back in 2002, Zambia similarly rejected food aid that included GM products.
Related: Your Body On Roundup
In Hawaii, after the deadly ringspot virus ravaged the state’s papaya crops, one scientist created a genetically modified, disease-resistant fruit called the rainbow papaya. But Japan, long one of the biggest global papaya importers, rejected the modified fruits for years (again, the precautionary principle). It was only in 2012 that Japan lifted the ban. Even then, many Japanese supermarkets refused to carry the rainbow papaya.
Then there’s the European Union. The EU government has maintained a moratorium since 2001 on GMO approvals. Prior to that, only one strain of maize had been allowed, from Monsanto, in 1998. But in September 2013, the General Court of the EU ruled that Europe needed to push forward approval of another strain of GM maize, this time from the Pioneer corporation. The court felt the GM approval delays had grown unreasonable; this was seen as a tidal shift, provoking an unsurprising degree of controversy throughout Europe.
Earlier this year, the EU government issued another ruling granting member countries the right to opt out of GMOs. In contrast to England, which seems on track to start cultivating GM crops. They already import some, but Scotland wants no part of it. Claiming that the tiny island has a “clean and green” reputation to uphold, Scottish officials are toeing a hard line.
“There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers,” said environment secretary Richard Lochhead in an official statement. “I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14 billion food and drink sector.”
This decision was not met with unequivocal approval. Scottish conservatives claim embarrassment, saying it makes their nation appear backwards. “I think this decision puts superstition before science,” Conservative leader Murdo Fraser told The Guardian. But while there’s surely a whiff of PR in the Scottish government’s decision, this is also the precautionary principle, writ large.
Many believe that we still don’t know what the long-term effects of GM crops. Though no scientific study has shown adverse effects on human health, GMO opponents worry that we don’t have enough data yet. Plus there’s fear of contamination, à la Hawaii: Organic papaya growers suffered after it was shown that their trees were cross-pollinating with the GM papaya. And so Scottish environmental advocates worry what would happen when GM crops butt up against conventional ones.
An open question is whether Scotland is an outlier here. Individual European nations have expressed their own distrust of genetically modified products in past. Poland, for instance, restricts all marketing of GM seeds within its borders. Austria, Hungary, and Luxembourg have banned growth of an experimental GM potato. And a handful of European countries have previously forbidden GM corn, including the strain that the EU government approved.
It remains to be seen whether Scotland’s decision will inspire others to follow suit.
Current List Of Countries Stricter GMO Laws Than The U.S.
Though the United States, Mexico, and Canada currently have no national laws regarding the labeling of genetically modified foods, this isn’t the case everywhere. Here’s a list of countries that currently require some form of labeling for products with GMO ingredients: