GM-pollen in Honey: a constituent or an ingredient?


Post by John Davison, Research Director (retired), INRA Versailles, France.
WinnieIn 2011, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) made a judgement regarding the case Bablok and Others v. Freistaat Bayern(1). Honey produced on Bablok’s farm was supposedly found to contain pollen from genetically modified MON810 maize(2, 3). It should be noted that no accredited scientific evidence regarding quantification  of MON810 pollen in Bablok’s honey was ever published.

Based upon these ‘facts’, and with reference to Regulation (EC) No 1830/2003, the ECJ concluded Bablok’s honey contained ingredients produced from GMOs within the meaning of the regulation. The situation was further complicated by the fact that MON810 maize was authorized for cultivation and consumption but, at that time,  MON810 pollen was not authorized as food (this has now been rectified). The threshold for unauthorized GM-pollen is 0%.

The ECJ decision was taken without regard for the economic situation or the social consequences. Europe produces 200,000 tonnes per year and must import an additional 140,000 tonnes mainly from South America and China.  The ECJ decision was also taken without consideration for the safety of the honey since EFSA had long stated that pollen from maize MON810 is as safe as non-GM maize.

Under the  ECJ decision all honey produced in the EU would require GMO quantification. The costs would be which will be particularly high due to the 0% tolerance imposed by the ECJ and would be unsupportable by amateur EU beekeepers.  A European Parliament Report (EP)(4) stated The cost of the tests might even exceed current production costs per hive. It may even be that the introduction of the new requirements will prompt some amateur beekeepers to stop making honey’. As regards imported honey, which comes mainly from South America and China which are GMO producers, the honey would again require extensive and expensive quantification, since according to the ECJ decision, the EC authorizations are necessary irrespective of the proportion of GM material in the honey.

The result of the 2011 ECJ judgement was to spread confusion in the honey market, and as a result no decisions being taken for more than 2 years. Recently, the EC has attempted to defuse the situation by proposing that pollen in honey is not an ingredient but a natural constituent(4). The European Parliament (EP)(15/01/2014) has now agreed with this position(5). This would have the effect that labelling would be required only if the pollen in the honey exceeded 0.9% of the total honey. Since the % of pollen in honey is between 0.005 and 0.05 %, the 0.9% threshold would never be exceeded and labelling would never be required.

Unfortunately, as with most things European, ‘the show is not over until the fat lady sings’. The decision now passes from the European Parliament to the European Council and, even after that, it could be challenged in European courts (which was where it all started).

MON810 is the now only GM-plant commercially cultivated in the EU. On the other hand, non-EU countries, from which the EU imports honey, grow a variety of GM-crops that are not authorized in the EU. In the event that pollen from these crops found its way into honey then the tolerance threshold would be 0% (despite the fact that 0% cannot be measured by present scientific methods (6) ). This would then block honey export and create a honey shortage in the EU.

To terminate, one must ask what the ECJ, the EC and the EP believe that they are achieving. The ECJ and the EP make decisions where they have no competence and without regard, or knowledge, for the economic or social consequences. The EC, in contrast, has the expertise but suffers from constant political interference and compromise. Surely Europe is a better place with honey than without it and surely the life-style of bees and beekeepers is worth maintaining since it brings enormous benefits other than honey. A similar point has been raised by the EP rapporteur Julie Girling(7) I ask you this: do we really want to base legislation on a false premise and then subsequently force small-scale beekeepers out of business?’ Since Girling’s report was adopted by 430 votes to 224, with 19 abstentions, It seems that 36% of EMPs truly did prefer to destroy the European honey industry in deference to their anti-GMO sentiments.

Finally, to avoid polemic, it should be reiterated that this discussion is not about food safety (EFSA long ago made their recommendation on MON810 pollen). This discussion is only about the meanings of the words ‘ingredient’ and ‘constituent’ and the consequences of these meanings. “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” (Lewis Carrol, 1871).


1) Decision of the ECJ of 6 September 2011 (Case C-442/09) Karl Heinz Bablok v Freistaat Bayern.

2) Davison J. Honey-free Europe. November (2011)

3) Davison John. The imaginary EU GM-Honey crisis is resolved (2012).

4) Gabriel Mariya. (2012) Draft Opinion of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development for the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Directive 2001/110/EC relating to honey.

5) Parliament clarifies labelling rules for honey if contaminated by GM pollen (2014).

6) Żmijewska et al. Pollen from
genetically modified plants in honey – problems with quantification and proper
. Journal of Apicultural Science Volume 57, 5-19 (2013)

7) Girling Julie. (2014) Honey debate at the European parliament


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