Skip to main content Accessibility help

The interplay between societal concerns and the regulatory frame on GM crops in the European Union

  • Yann Devos (a1), Dirk Reheul (a1), Danny De Waele (a2) and Linda Van Speybroeck (a2)


Recapitulating how genetic modification technology and its agro-food products aroused strong societal opposition in the European Union, this paper demonstrates how this opposition contributed to shape the European regulatory frame on GM crops. More specifically, it describes how this opposition contributed to a de facto moratorium on the commercialization of new GM crop events in the end of the nineties. From this period onwards, the regulatory frame has been continuously revised in order to slow down further erosion of public and market confidence. Various scientific and technical reforms were made to meet societal concerns relating to the safety of GM crops. In this context, the precautionary principle, environmental post-market monitoring and traceability were adopted as ways to cope with scientific uncertainties. Labeling, traceability, co-existence and public information were installed in an attempt to meet the general public request for more information about GM agro-food products, and the specific demand to respect the consumers' and farmers' freedom of choice. Despite these efforts, today, the explicit role of public participation and/or ethical consultation during authorization procedures is at best minimal. Moreover, no legal room was created to progress to an integral sustainability evaluation during market procedures. It remains to be seen whether the recent policy shift towards greater transparency about value judgments, plural viewpoints and scientific uncertainties will be one step forward in integrating ethical concerns more explicitly in risk analysis. As such, the regulatory frame stands open for further interpretation, reflecting in various degrees a continued interplay with societal concerns relating to GM agro-food products. In this regard, both societal concerns and diversely interpreted regulatory criteria can be inferred as signaling a request – and even a quest – to render more explicit the broader-than-scientific dimension of the actual risk analysis.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The interplay between societal concerns and the regulatory frame on GM crops in the European Union
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The interplay between societal concerns and the regulatory frame on GM crops in the European Union
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The interplay between societal concerns and the regulatory frame on GM crops in the European Union
      Available formats


Corresponding author


Hide All
[1] ACRE (2004a) Advice on the implementation of the farm-scale evaluations of genetically modified herbicide-tolerance crops,
[2] ACRE (2004b) Guidance on best practice in the design of post-market monitoring plans in submissions to the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment,
[3] ACRE (2005) Advice on the implementation of the farm-scale evaluations of genetically modified herbicide-tolerance winter oilseed rape,
[4] ACRE (2006) Managing the footprint of agriculture: towards a comparative assessment of risks and benefits for novel agricultural systems,
[5] Altieri MA (2005) The myth of coexistence: why transgenic crops are not compatible with agroecologically based systems of production. B. Sci. Technol. Soc. 25: 1–11
[6] BAC (2004) Advice on the British report `On the rationale and interpretation of the Farm-Scale Evaluation (FSE) of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops',
[7] Bennett, PM, Livesey, CT, Nathwani, D, Reeves, DS, Saunders, JR, Wise, R (2004) An assessment of the risks associated with the use of antibiotic resistance genes in genetically modified plants: report of the working party of the British society for antimicrobial chemotherapy. J. Antimicrob. Chemother. 53: 418431
[8] Bonneuil C, Joly PB, Marris C (in press) Disentrenching experiment? The construction of GM-crop field trials as a social problem in France. Sci. Tech. Human Values
[9] Brom, FWA (2000) Food, consumer concerns, and trust: food ethics for a globalizing market. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 12: 127139
[10] Carr, S (2002) Ethical and value-based aspects of the European Commission's precautionary principle. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 15: 3138
[11] Carr, S, Levidow, L (2000) Exploring the links between science, risk, uncertainty and ethics in regulatory controversies about genetically modified crops. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 12: 2939
[12] Carter, CA, Gruère, GP (2003) Mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods: does it really provide consumer choice? AgBioForum 6: 6870
[13] CEC (2000) Communication from the Commission on the precautionary principle,
[14] CEC (2006) Report from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on the implementation of Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed
[15] Chamberlain DE, Fuller RJ, Bunce RGH, Duckworth JC, Shrubb M (2000) Changes in the abundance of farmland birds in relation to the timing of agricultural intensification in England and Wales. J. Appl. Ecol. 37: 771–788
[16] Chapman, MA, Burke, JM (2006) Letting the gene out of the bottle: the population genetics of genetically modified crops. New Phytol. 170: 429443
[17] Chassy, B, Carter, C, McGloughlin, M, McHughen, A, Parrott, W, Preston, C, Roush, R, Shelton, A, Strauss, SH (2003) UK field-scale evaluations answer wrong questions. Nat. Biotechnol. 21: 14291430
[18] Christoforou, T (2004) The regulation of genetically modified organisms in the European Union: the interplay of science, law and politics. CML Rev. 41: 637709
[19] COGEM (2003) Towards an integrated framework for the assessment of social and ethical issues in modern biotechnology,
[20] Cook, G, Pieri, E, Robbins, PT (2004) `The scientists think and the public feels': expert perceptions of the discourse of GM food. Discourse Soc. 15: 433449
[21] Cook, G, Robbins, PT, Pieri, E (2006) “Words of mass destruction”: British newspaper coverage of the genetically modified food debate, expert and non-expert reactions. Public Underst. Sci. 15: 529
[22] de Sadeleer, N (2006) The precautionary principle in the EC health and environmental law. ELJ 12: 139172
[23] De Schrijver, A, Devos, Y, Van den Bulcke, M, Cadot, P, De Loose, M, Reheul, D, Sneyers, M (2007) Risk assessment of GM stacked events obtained from crosses between GM events. Trends Food Sci. Technol. 18: 101109
[24] Deblonde, M, du Jardin P (2005) Deepening a precautionary European policy. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 18: 319343
[25] Deckers, J (2005) Are scientists right and non-scientists wrong? Reflections on discussions of GM. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 18: 451478
[26] Demeke, T, Perry, DJ, Scowcroft, WR (2006) Adventitious presence of GMOs: scientific overview for Canadian grains. Can. J. Plant Sci. 86: 123
[27] Demont, M, Tollens, E (2004) First impact of biotechnology in the EU: Bt maize adoption in Spain. An. Appl. Biol. 145: 197207
[28] Devos, Y, Reheul, D, De Schrijver, A, Cors, F, Moens, W (2004) Management of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape in Europe: a case study on minimizing vertical gene flow. Environ. Biosafety Res. 3: 135148
[29] Devos, Y, Reheul, D, De Schrijver A (2005) The co-existence between transgenic and non-transgenic maize in the European Union: a focus on pollen flow and cross-fertilization. Environ. Biosafety Res. 4: 7187
[30] Devos Y, Reheul D, Thas O, De Clercq EM, Cougnon M, Cordemans K (2007) Implementing isolation perimeters around genetically modified maize fields. Agron. Sustain. Dev., doi:10.1051/agro:2006005
[31] EC (2006) Report on the implementation of national measures on the co-existence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming,
[32] EFSA (2004a) Opinion of the scientific panel on genetically modified organisms on the use of antibiotic resistance genes as marker genes in genetically modified plants. EFSA J. 48: 118
[33] EFSA (2004b) Guidance document of the scientific panel on genetically modified organisms for the risk assessment of genetically modified plants and derived food and feed. EFSA J. 99: 194
[34] EFSA (2006a) Opinion of the scientific panel on genetically modified organisms on the post market environmental monitoring (PMEM) of genetically modified plants. EFSA J. 319: 127
[35] EFSA (2006b) Opinion of the scientific panel on genetically modified organisms on a request from the Commission related to the notification (C/SE/96/3501) for the placing on the market of genetically modified potato EH92-527-1 with altered starch composition, for cultivation and production of starch, under Part C of Directive 2001/18/EC from BASF Plant Science. EFSA J. 323: 120
[36] EFSA (2006c) Opinion of the scientific panel on genetically modified organisms on a request from the Commission related to genetically modified crops (Bt176 maize, MON810 maize, T25 maize, Topas 19/2 oilseed rape and MS1 $\times$ RF1 oilseed rape) subject to safeguard clauses invoked according to Article 16 of Directive 90/220/EEC. EFSA J. 338: 115
[37] EFSA (2006d) Transparency in risk assessment carried out by EFSA: guidance document on procedural aspects. EFSA J. 353: 116
[38] EGE (1995) Opinion of the group of advisers on the ethical implications of biotechnology to the European Commission on the ethical aspects of the labelling of foods derived from modern biotechnology,
[39] Firbank, L, Lonsdale, M, Poppy, G (2005) Reassessing the environmental risks of GM crops. Nat. Biotechnol. 23: 12
[40] Frewer, L, Lassen, J, Kettlitz, B, Scholderer, J, Beekman, V, Berdal, KG (2004) Societal aspects of genetically modified food. Food Chem. Toxicol. 42: 11811193
[41] Friesen, LF, Nelson, AG, Van Acker, RC (2003) Evidence of contamination of pedigreed canola (Brassica napus) seedlots in western Canada with genetically modified herbicide resistance traits. Agron. J. 95: 13421347
[42] Gaskell, G, Allum, N, Wagner, W, Kronberger, N, Torgersen, H, Hampel, J, Bardes, J (2004) GM foods and the misperception of risk perception. Risk Anal. 24: 185-194
[43] Gaskell G, Allansdottir A, Allum N, Corchero C, Fischler C, Hampel J, Jackson J, Kronberger N, Mejlgaard N, Revuelta G, Schreiner C, Stares S, Torgersen H, Wagner W (2006) Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005: Patterns and Trends, Eurobarometer 64.3,
[44] Genus A, Coles AM (2005) On constructive technology assessment and limitations on public participation in technology assessment. Tech. Anal. Strat. Manage. 17: 433–443
[45] Goldstein, DA, Tinland, B, Gilbertson, LA, Staub, JM, Bannon, GA, Goodman, RE, McCoy, RL, Silvanovich, A (2005) Human safety and genetically modified plants: a review of antibiotic resistance markers and future transformation selection technologies. J. Appl. Microbiol. 99: 723
[46] Gottweis, H (2005) Transnationalizing recombinant-DNA regulation: between Asilomar, EMBO, the OECD, and the European Community. Sci. Cult. 14: 325338
[47] Gruère, GP (2006) A preliminary comparison of the retail level effects of genetically modified food labelling policies in Canada and France. Food Policy 31: 148161
[48] Gryson N, Messens K, Van Laere D, Eeckhout M (2007) Co-existence and traceability of GM and non-GM products in the feed chain. Eur. Food Res. Technol., doi: 10.1007/s00217-006-0511-x
[49] Guehlstorf, NP, Hallstrom, LK (2005) The role of culture in risk regulations: a comparative case study of genetically modified corn in the United States of America and European Union. Environ. Sci. Policy 8: 327342
[50] Hails, RS, Morley, K (2005) Genes invading new populations: a risk assessment perspective. Trends Ecol. Evol. 20: 245252
[51] Heller, C (2002) From scientific risk to paysan savoir-faire: peasant expertise in the French and global debate over GM crops. Sci. Cult. 11: 537
[52] Hill RA (2005) Conceptualizing risk assessment methodology for genetically modified organisms. Environ. Biosafety Res. 4: 67–70
[53] Hill, RA, Sendashonga, C (2003) General principles for risk assessment of living modified organisms: lessons for chemical risk assessment. Environ. Biosafety Res. 2: 8188
[54] Hoffmann-Riem, H, Wynne, B (2002) In risk assessment, one has to admit ignorance. Nature 416: 123
[55] Holst-Jensen, A, De Loose, M, van den Eede G (2006) Coherence between legal requirements and approaches for detection of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their derived products. J. Agric. Food Chem. 54: 27992809
[56] Huffman WE (2004) Production, identity preservation, and labeling in a marketplace with genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods. Plant Physiol. 134: 3–10
[57] Irwin, A (2006) The politics of talk: coming to terms with the `new' scientific governance. Soc. Stu. Sci. 36: 299320
[58] Jensen, KK (2002) The moral foundation of the precautionary principle. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 15: 3955
[59] Jensen, KK, Sandøe, P (2002) Food safety and ethics: the interplay between science and values. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 15: 245253
[60] Jensen, KK, Gamborg, C, Madsen, KH, Jørgensen, RB, Krayer von Krauss, M, Folker, AP, Sandøe, P (2003) Making the EU “Risk Window” transparent: the normative foundation of risk assessment of GMOs. Environ. Biosafety Res. 2: 161171
[61] Johnson, KL, Raybould, AF, Hudson, MD, Poppy, GM (2007) How does scientific risk assessment of GM crops fit within the wider risk analysis? Trends Plant Sci. 12: 1-5
[62] Kalaitzandonakes, N, Bijman, J (2003) Who is driving biotechnology acceptance? Nat. Biotechnol. 21: 366369
[63] Karlsson, M (2003a) Ethics of sustainable development - a study of Swedish regulations for genetically modified organisms. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 16: 5162
[64] Karlsson, M (2003b) Biosafety principles for GMOs in the context of sustainable development. Int. J. Sust. Dev. World Ecol. 10: 1526
[65] Karlsson, M (2006) Science and norms in policies for sustainable development: assessing and managing risks of chemical substances and genetically modified organisms in the European Union. Regul. Toxicol. Pharmacol. 44: 4956
[66] Kok EJ, Kuiper HA (2003) Comparative safety assessment for biotech crops. Trends Biotechnol. 21: 439–444
[67] König, A, Cockburn, A, Crevel, RWR, Debruyne, E, Grafstroem, R, Hammerling, U, Kimber, I, Knudsen, I, Kuiper, HA, Peijnenburg, AACM, Penninks, AH, Poulsen, M, Schauzu, M, Wal, JM (2004) Assessment of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified (GM) crops. Food Chem. Toxicol. 42: 10471088
[68] Krayer von Krauss, MP, Casman, EA, Small, MJ (2004) Elicitation of expert judgments of uncertainty in the risk assessment of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape crops. Risk Anal. 24: 15151527
[69] Lassen, J, Jamison, A (2006) Genetic technologies meet the public: the discourses of concern. Sci. Tech. Human Values 31: 828
[70] Lassen, J, Madsen, KH, Sandøe, P (2002) Ethics and genetic engineering – lessons to be learned from GM foods. Bioprocess Biosyst. Eng. 24: 263271
[71] Lezaun, J (2006) Creating a new object of government: making genetically modified organisms traceable. Soc. Stu. Sci. 36: 499531
[72] Levidow, L (2001) Precautionary uncertainty: regulating GM crops in Europe. Soc. Stu. Sci. 31: 842874
[73] Levidow L (2006) EU agbiotech regulation. Soziale Technik 3: 10-12
[74] Levidow, L, Bijman, J (2002) Farm inputs under pressure from the European food industry. Food Policy 27: 3145
[75] Levidow L, Boschert K (in press) Coexistence or contradictions? Agricultural biotechnology versus alternative agricultures in Europe. Geoforum
[76] Levidow L, Carr S (in press) Europeanising advisory expertise: the role of `independent, objective and transparent' scientific advice in agri-biotech regulation. Environ. Plann. C
[77] Levidow, L, Carr, S, Wield, D (2005) European Union regulation of agri-biotechnology: precautionary links between science, expertise and policy. Sci. Public Policy 32: 261276
[78] Levidow, L, Murphy, J, Carr, S (2007) Recasting “substantial equivalence”: transatlantic governance of GM food. Sci. Tech. Human Values 32: 26-64
[79] Lheureux, K, Menrad, K (2004) A decade of European fields trials with genetically modified plants. Environ. Biosafety Res. 3: 99107
[80] Lilley, AK, Bailey, MJ, Cartwright, C, Turner, SL, Hirsch, PR (2006) Life in earth: the impact of GM plants on soil ecology? Trends Biotechnol. 24: 914
[81] Lusk JL, Traill WB, House LO, Valli C, Jaeger SR, Moore M, Morrow B (2006) Comparative advantage in demand: experimental evidence of preferences for genetically modified food in the United States and European Union. J. Agr. Econ. 57: 1–21
[82] Madsen, KH, Sandøe, P (2005) Ethical reflections on herbicide-resistant crops. Pest Manag. Sci. 61: 318325
[83] Marris C, Wynne B, Simmons P, Weldon S (2001) Public perception of agricultural biotechnologies in Europe. Final report of the PABE research project,
[84] Marris, C, Joly, PB, Ronda, S, Bonneuil, C (2005) How the French GM controversy led to the reciprocal emancipation of scientific expertise and policy making. Sci. Public Policy 32: 301308
[85] Marvier, M, Van Acker, RC (2005) Can crop transgenes be kept on a leash? Front. Ecol. Environ. 3: 99106
[86] Mayer, S, Stirling, A (2002) Finding a precautionary approach to technological developments – lessons for the evaluation of GM crops. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 15: 5771
[87] Mepham, B (2000) A framework for the ethical analysis of novel foods: the ethical matrix. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 12: 165176
[88] Millstone, E, Brunner, E, Mayer, S (1999) Beyond `substantial equivalence'. Nature 401: 525526
[89] Miraglia, M, Berdal, KG, Brera, C, Corbisier, P, Holst-Jensen, A, Kok, EJ, Marvin, HJP, Schimmel, H, Rentsch, J, van Rie, JPPF, Zagon, J (2004) Detection and traceability of genetically modified organisms in the food production chain. Food Chem. Toxicol. 42: 11571180
[90] Mitchell, P (2003) Europe sees sharp decline in GMO research. Nat. Biotechnol. 21: 468469
[91] Murphy, J, Levidow, L, Carr, S (2006) Regulatory standards for environmental risks: understanding the US-European Union conflict over genetically modified crops. Soc. Stu. Sci. 36: 133160
[92] Myhr, AI, Traavik, T (2003) Sustainable development and Norwegian genetic engineering regulations: applications, impacts and challenges. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 16: 317335
[93] Nielsen L, Faber BA (2002) Ethical principles in European regulation of biotechnology – possibilities and pitfalls,
[94] Nisbet MC, Huge M (2006) Attention cycles and frames in the plant biotechnology debate – managing power and participation through the press/policy connection. Harv. Int. J. Press-Pol. 11: 3–40
[95] Noussair, C, Robin, S, Ruffieux, B (2004) Do consumers really refuse to buy genetically modified food? Econ. J. 114: 102120
[96] Nowotny, H (2003) Democratising expertise and socially robust knowledge. Sci. Public Policy 30: 151156
[97] Oreszczyn, S (2005) GM crops in the UK: precaution as process. Sci. Public Policy 32: 317324
[98] Paula L, van den Belt H (in press) Work package 5: ethics in food technologies. The institutionalisation of ethics in science policy; practices and impact,
[99] Petersen, A (2005) The metaphors of risk: biotechnology in the news. Health Risk Soc. 7: 203208
[100] Robinson, RA, Sutherland, WJ (2002) Post-war changes in arable farming and biodiversity in Great Britain. J. Appl. Ecol. 39: 157176
[101] Saji, H, Nakajima, N, Aono, M, Tamaoki, M, Kubo, A, Wakiyama, S, Natase, Y, Nagatsu, M (2005) Monitoring the escape of transgenic oilseed rape around Japanese ports and roadsides. Environ. Biosafety Res. 4: 217222
[102] Sandin P (1999) Dimensions of the precautionary principle. Hum. Ecol. Risk Assess. 5: 889–907
[103] Sanvido, O, Widmer, F, Winzeler, M, Bigler, F (2005) A conceptual framework for the design of environmental post-market monitoring of genetically modified plants. Environ. Biosafety Res. 4: 1327
[104] Schenkelaars, P (2002) Rethinking substantial equivalence. Nat. Biotechnol. 20: 119
[105] Schibeci, R, Harwood, J, Dietrich, H (2006) Community involvement in biotechnology policy? The Australian experience. Sci. Comm. 27: 429445
[106] Schiemann, J (2003) Co-existence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming. Environ. Biosafety Res. 2: 213217
[107] Schot, J (2001) Towards new forms of participatory technology development. Techn. Anal. Strat. Manage. 13: 3952
[108] SCP (2001) Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Plants concerning the adventitious presence of GM seeds in conventional seeds,
[109] Shaw, A (2002) “It just goes against the grain.” Public understandings of genetically modified (GM) food in the UK. Public Underst. Sci. 11: 273291
[110] Siegrist, M (2000) The influence of trust and perceptions of risks and benefits on the acceptance of gene technology. Risk Anal. 20: 195203
[111] Slovic, P (1987) Perception of risk. Science 236: 280285
[112] Spence, A, Townsend, E (2006) Examining consumer behavior toward genetically modified (GM) food in Britain. Risk Anal. 26: 657670
[113] Streiffer, R, Hedemann, T (2005) The political import of intrinsic objections to genetically engineered food. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 18: 191210
[114] Streiffer R, Rubel A (2004) Democratic principles and mandatory labelling of genetically modified food. Pub. Affairs Quart. 18: 223–248
[115] Tencalla, F (2006) Science, politics and the GM debate in Europe. Regul. Toxicol. Pharmacol. 44: 4348
[116] Townsend, E (2006) Affective influences on risk perceptions of, and attitudes toward, genetically modified food. J. Risk Res. 9: 125139
[117] van den Eede, G, Aarts, H, Buhk, HJ, Corthier, G, Flint, HJ, Hammes, W, Jacobsen, B, Midtvedt, T, van der Vossen, J, von Wright, A, Wackernagel, W, Wilcks, A (2004) The relevance of gene transfer of food and feed derived from genetically modified (GM) plants. Food Chem. Toxicol. 42: 11271156
[118] Verhoog, H, Matze, M, Lammerts Van Bueren, E, Baars, T (2003) The role of the concept of the natural (naturalness) in organic farming. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 16: 2949
[119] Vogel, G (2006) Tracing transatlantic spread of GM rice. Science 313: 1714
[120] Wandall, B (2004) Values in science and risk assessment. Toxicol. Lett. 152: 265272
[121] Weighardt, F (2006) European GMO labeling thresholds impractical and unscientific. Nat. Biotechnol. 24: 2325
[122] Wynne, B (2001) Expert discourses of risks and ethics on genetically manipulated organisms: the weaving of public alienation. Notizie di Politeia 17: 5176
[123] Yoshimura, Y, Beckie, HJ, Matsuo, K (2006) Transgenic oilseed rape along transportation routes and port of Vancouver in western Canada. Environ. Biosafety Res. 5: 6775


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

The interplay between societal concerns and the regulatory frame on GM crops in the European Union

  • Yann Devos (a1), Dirk Reheul (a1), Danny De Waele (a2) and Linda Van Speybroeck (a2)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.