TCS Daily


Frankenfears

By Michael Standaert - July 9, 2002 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- After years of pandering to fear of genetically modified crops in the European media, protected farm interests and green groups, it is difficult for the European Union to backtrack and claim to support GM crop production and the substantial use of GM foods without a backlash of public opinion. On one hand, the European Commission recently issued tough new rules on GM's, and on the other it is pumping billions of freshly minted euros into biotech research.

On July 3, the European parliament voted to enact even more stringent new labeling rules for GM foods than the Commission, setting up a detailed system to track GM ingredients through the food chain, requiring all food derived from GM organisms to be labeled even if they have no traces of modified DNA or proteins, and detailed labeling of animal feed. The vote still has to go through the main decision-making body of the EU, the Council of Ministers. The US claims it loses $300 million dollars a year due to the EU not approving new GM products.

For a picture of what the EU is up against, one can easily turn to the papers. The left-leaning British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, ran this frightening headline a little over a month ago -- 'GM could kill off organic farms'. "Organic farming in Britain could be doomed if the government approves the cultivation of genetically modified crops," the article said.

This term -- 'organic' -- as a brand and as a label is almost as misleading as the term 'genetically modified'. It automatically sets up expectations without verifiable results. Maybe it is the decades of films of mad scientists, a history of eugenicists, comic book mutants juxtaposed against the background of years of firmly entrenched socialists and greens in Europe attempting to regulate everything under the sun that has brought us to this point.

But we often forget that we modify ourselves in small ways every day. Some of us sunbathe, and slather chemicals on ourselves in doing so, and increase our chances to be modified enough that we may get skin cancer. Some smoke, perhaps more in Europe than in the US, we (some of us) do drugs, drink, pump our breasts full of silicone, nip and tuck our chins and butts. Others take charge by modifying their bodies through exercise, dieting, or moving to climates or locations they see as healthier. Some choose to modify themselves by not eating meat. Some modify their enjoyment by eating what they like. And that is our choice. You can choose to smoke and possibly get cancer, and cigarettes rightly have a warning label telling us that they may cause harm. Labeling a food product with a warning of 'genetically modified' when there is no proof of harm, brings expectations of harm just as much as labeling something 'organic' brings expectations of beneficial health. The arguments that it is the choice of the consumer to put something modified of organic into their bodies don't hold much weight under the present knowledge that there is no harm in these foods. Even 'organic' foods are not always safe, or truly advertised, as seen in a recent incident where Spain was reprimanded by the European Commission for labeling some foods 'organic' that were processed under heavy use of non-organic pesticides. Germany also recently underwent a scandal in its organic food industry.

There is a certain threshold of risk all inventions and new technologies require, a certain factor of risk analysis. Automobiles kill thousands of people per year and have since they were invented though no one is saying we should have never invented the car (except maybe the Unabomber). And yes, there has been regulation to make cars safer and less polluting, and there should be regulation to ensure that GM products are safe for consumers and the environment. At this point they seem safe enough and disallowing consumers the opportunity to consume what could be a cheaper and safe product is bad for European consumers.

Let's face it. Europe is behind the US in advances on genetic technology being used in the marketplace. "Europe cannot afford to miss this new, global revolution," Philippe Busquin, head of research for the European Commission, said in Brussels May 29th. "It will happen with or without us."

Mr. Busquin is correct in his assumption that they cannot afford to miss the revolution. But it is not new, as he says, and it has been happening with or without the European Community across the waves of the Atlantic for quite some time. Now the Europeans are ready for the game, and priming the pump as quickly as they can. Quietly, the EU is opening up the road to GMs through the back door. Under the sixth framework program for biotech development under the European Commission, the total budget for genomics and biotechnology research for health, food, nanotechnology and sustainable development, Busquin said, stands at 2.25 billion euros.

After years of spreading fear and also bowing to media pressure, European leaders are trying to dig out of the hole, knowing that if they miss out, they will lose out on a large and vital sector in the world economy. Even British PM Tony Blair has said he sees 'no health risks' in GM foods. If there are no health risks seen, and a Royal Society Report issued late last year said there were none, the insistence by the EU to label foods with more than 1% GM material 'genetically modified' doesn't hold much weight. Once again to the navel-gazing Observer which says Blair's remarks are bowing to US pressure "amid a looming row over American attempts to swamp European markets with food made from GM ingredients and with no warning labels."

The only real swamp here is the quagmire of protectionism against U.S. food products that should be allowed on European shelves and not subject to labeling that automatically puts the thought of fear into the minds of consumers. A warning label is just that, a warning of danger. If there is no foreseen danger, why have a warning? A more sensible approach would be to keep the 'organic' branding on those foods produced in such a way that they are verified truly organic, while also lifting the warning labeling on GM foods. An unknown percentage of people may swarm to 'organics' out of fear, but the likely scenario is that consumers seeking lower prices would not even care as long as they are getting tasty, healthy, and hygienically safe food. The last is the real problem of insuring food safety. No one has died of GM foods or is known to become sick, though many have died or become ill from tainted, unhygienic, mishandled food goods which is the EU's main problem with its own food safety.

Organic farmers rightly see GM crops as a threat to their brand of 'organic' which often brings higher prices because of more intensive methods and smaller areas of production. If the costs of preventing cross-contamination from modified crops are too high, according to the European Commission report, they would lose out on that lucrative market. Among options the EU report looks at is establishing GM-free zones, which could be an alternative to an outright ban of GM crops and cut the cost of attempting measures such as staggering growing periods or greater distances of separation of GM and non-GM crops, or lifting the ban totally. The last doesn't seem likely given public opinion and interest group pressure.

Amidst all the other arguments surrounding steel and farm subsidies the US has used to protect its markets, the debate over labeling of some US food products as 'genetically modified', seen largely as an unfair trade barrier by the US, could spark more fuel in recent trade war issues. The US has not formally issued a complaint with the WTO, but US trade representative Robert Zoellick said earlier this year that he was 'strongly considering' bringing the case before the WTO.

Chief US agricultural negotiator for the US Trade Representative office Allen Johnson was in Brussels in late June and commented that the US is 'losing patience' with the dragging moratorium. "Obviously what our hope had been was to open up the EU approval process. It is safe to say that people are very concerned about this (failure to do so), and we will have to look more aggressively at what our options are." He said the US was hoping for the EU to establish a system where non-GMO products could be identified, but that there was "no way to detect what is and what is not currently, creating an opportunity for fraud. It seems US consumers have more confidence in food safety regulatory bodies than what we see here. If consumers care, they will respond in the marketplace, if consumers want a product, but it has to be available for them to choose."

 

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