How the European Food Safety Authority Fails to apply the Precautionary Principle when Evaluating GMO Environmental Risk Assessment

Post Author: Gabriel Bernard-Lacaille

Concerns of the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) on human health and on the environment have grown tremendously.  More and more studies are showing adverse effects on human health and the uncertainty of GMO crops on ecosystems is appalling.

If we want to know more on the adverse effects of GMO’s on the health and the environment, I suggest you watch this documentary.


The European Union (EU) is sometimes considered a leader in the management on the GMO’s since it has mandatory labelling of GMO products and six of its member states have banned GMO crop cultivation1. In 2002, the EU established the European Food Safety Authority in order to provide scientific advice to policy makers.  More precisely, the EFSA was to provide clear guidance on risk assessment and management.  GMO’s were no exception.

Figure 1.  ESFA guidelines for Environmental risk assessment approach for a GM plant.  Retrieved from

Figure 1. ESFA guidelines for Environmental risk assessment approach for a GM plant. Retrieved from

The core task of the EFSA is “to independently assess any possible risks of GMOs to human and animal health and the environment”2.  EFSA provides guidelines (Figure 1) to member states so that they can conduct environmental risk assessment (ERA) of GMO crops.  It then formulates an opinion on the conclusions of the ERA. The EFSA has no regulatory power, but influences members states and the EU by emitting scientific opinions on each ERA.  Recently, the EFSA has lost credibility since it rejects any studies showing adverse effects on the basis of “insufficient scientific quality”3.  Recently, the EFSA has rejected concerns of France4 and Italy5 concerning Monsanto’s maize MT810 even though studies show adverse effects on health and on the environment6,7.  The EFSA scientific judgement is flawed because the agency fails to apply the precautionary principle which is essential when dealing with GMO’s8.

French beekeepers demonstrate in front of French Monsanto headquarters in Bron

French beekeepers protest against GMO corn. Credit: Reuters/Robert Pratta

ERA provides a more holistic approach that integrates environmental, social, economic and health aspects in order to provide managers and decision/policy makers with sound scientific advice9.  ERA’s try to manage the risk of uncertainty associated with a given project instead of predicting it.  With GMO’s, it is impossible to predict an effect since they are new organisms that don’t exist in nature.  Thus, applying the precautionary principle is of upmost importance.

This principle states that potential environmental risks should be dealt with even in the absence of scientific uncertainty10. When unsure, absence of risk must be proven without a doubt. Uncertainty in scientific studies comprises of two major components: methodology and statistical tests. Criticizing studies are a core aspect of science, but uncertainty does not mean the absence of risk according the precautionary principle. When rejecting the conclusions of studies, the ESFA uses arguments based on methodology or statistical tests such as poor replication, inappropriate test subjects and unsound interpretation of data to discount findings.  By doing this, the ESFA fails to look at studies through the lens of the precautionary principle.  Of course, many studies are not optimal or perfect in nature.  But when dealing with something as radically new as GMO’s, one must consider any effects seriously.  It is the responsibility of governments and their agencies to assure that ecological disasters related to GMO’s do not occur.  This can only be done by analyzing ERA according to the precautionary principle.


  1. Jacobsen, H. (2013, 06 11). Food safety agency seeks to repair its risk assessor reputation. Retrieved 10 07, 2013, from EU news & policy debates:
  2. European Food Safety Authority. (03, 10 2013). Genetically Modified Organisms. Retrieved 10 06, 2013, from European Food Safety Authority:
  3. European Commission. (n.d.). Rules on GMOs in the EU – Ban on GMOs cultivation. Retrieved 10 08, 2013, from Food and Feed Safety:
  4. Smith, D. (2012, 05 22). Monsanto Maize: EU Blocks France Ban On MON 810 Yieldgard. Retrieved 10 06, 2013, from International Buisness Times:
  5. Grey, N. (26, 09 2013). There is ‘no specific scientific evidence’ to support an Italian ban on the genetically modified maize MON810, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Retrieved 10 06, 2013, from Food Navigator:
  6. Bøhn, T., Primicerio, R., & Traavik, T. (2012). The German ban on GM maize MON810: scientifically justified or unjustified?. Environmental Sciences Europe,24(1), 1-7.
  7. De Vendômois, J. S., Roullier, F., Cellier, D., & Séralini, G. E. (2009). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health.International Journal of Biological Sciences5(7), 706.
  8. Giampietro, M. (2002). The precautionary principle and ecological hazards of genetically modified organisms. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment,31(6), 466-470.
  9. Hyett, D. (2010, 04). Environmental risk assessment in environmental impact assessment – Optional or mandatory . Retrieved 10 07, 2013, from International Association for Impact Assessment:
  10. Macilwain, C. (2000). Experts question precautionary approach. Nature,407(6804), 551-551.

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