Europe needs to embrace genetically engineered crops or face economic decline, according to a group of scientists from Spain.

The European Union is unique in the world for its strong stance against genetically modified organisms, primarily based upon concerns over potential health risks and environmental contamination. But many scientists say the opposition to GM crops is based more on fear than evidence; one recent attention-grabbing paper from French researchers linking GM corn to tumors has been criticized by independent groups as scientifically flawed.

“Europe's lack of trust in GMOs reflects a wider distrust of science,” Louise Fresco, a University of Amsterdam professor and a former United Nations assistant director general for agriculture, wrote in the journal Science in February. "Europeans tend to romanticize the pre-modern past, unaware of the suffering and food scarcity associated with low crop yields."

In a paper published in the journal Trends in Plant Science on Thursday, a group of researchers – mostly hailing from the University of Lleida’s Agrotecnio Center, and at least one of whom is involved in GM corn research – compared agricultural policy in the European Union for both foods grown in EU countries and imported products. The current regime of regulations is paradoxical, they say; while there are de facto moratoriums on growing certain genetically altered crops like corn and soybeans in most EU nations, the exact same GMO products can be imported from other countries.

“The EU is undermining its own competitiveness in the agricultural sector," the researchers wrote.

While the EU’s official policy supposedly supports the coexistence of GMOs and conventional crops, European farmers that want to plant GMOs face strict regulations that vary nation by nation. In Latvia, for example, a farmer must leave 4 kilometers of space between genetically engineered rapeseed and conventional rapeseed (which is used to make canola oil); that distance increases to 6 km if the non-GE rapeseed is classified as organic.

“GE agriculture is effectively prevented unless farmers agree to surround their crops with large areas of uncultivated land or risk litigation from surrounding farms,” the authors wrote.

In 2012, Europe produced less than 100,000 hectares (386 square miles) of GE crops, almost all of it consisting of Bt corn, which is modified to contain a toxin that poisons insects. That same year, the rest of the world produced 160 million hectares (617,700 square miles) of GE crops, according to the paper.

Meanwhile, the EU continues to depend on GE food: corn imported from the U.S., soybeans from South America, and animal feed from the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.

A similar story plays out in pesticides, the authors said: Europe places tight restrictions on what chemicals can be used on home-grown crops, but imports food from the U.S. and elsewhere that’s been treated with the banned stuff. Furthermore, pesticide restrictions have left farmers with only a few options amongst permitted chemicals, increasing the risk for the emergence of resistant pests.

De facto bans on GMO crops mean that Europe risks lagging behind not just in agriculture, but also in pharmaceutical research, the researchers said. Edible vaccines, compounds to prevent HIV transmission, and insulin are just a few of the things scientists are working on cultivating in GE plants. Several of the authors have also previously argued in a paper for the journal Plant Molecular Biology that GE crops tuned to produce bigger yields and greater nutrition can be a boon to small-scale and subsistence farmers in the developing world.

Overall, the EU’s policies on GMOs “are based on political expediency and short-term economic goals rather than rational scientific evidence and long-term economic models,” the authors said.

SOURCE: Masip et al. “Paradoxical EU agricultural policies on genetically engineered crops.” Trends in Plant Science published online 25 April 2013.