TCS Daily

Buon Appetito!?

By Dominic Standish - June 17, 2003 12:00 AM

I find Italy's prodotti nostrani, or home-grown products, hard to beat for quality. Undoubtedly, they contribute to one of the best cuisines in the world. So is this a reason to support the continuation of European restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? No way.

The European Union GMO authorisation procedure has provoked the wrath of the United States, resulting in a US complaint filed with the World Trade Organization. The US government has rightly made the case that EU laws on GMOs have blocked the development of a technology that could benefit both farmers and consumers.

But the restrictions on GMOs in Europe are also due to member countries disobeying EU laws. For example, in August 2000 the Italian government suspended the marketing of four genetically modified varieties of maize that had already been approved by the EU. The Italian Agriculture Ministry justified this as a "precautionary measure". According to Assobiotec, the national trade group for biotechnology firms, this decision had "no legal or scientific basis."

European authorities appear to be warming to GMOs. The European Commission has officially asked countries including Germany, France, Austria and Italy to pass laws on the release of GMOs into the environment or face legal action in the European Court of Justice. Next month, the European Parliament will meet to vote on an EU regulation that foresees the eventual commercialisation of GMOs. As the current Italian government prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in July, there appears to be a desire to build bridges with the US regarding GMOs.

The Italian foreign affairs minister, Franco Frattini, met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell last month in Rome and pledged the dispute would soon be resolved. On the "very delicate question of biotechnologies," said Frattini, there is the "prospect of an EU regulation that we hope will be approved by mid-July."

But significant opposition remains, even within the Italian government. Frattini's colleague, Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno, has championed a policy of "zero tolerance" of genetically modified seeds. "I think that Italian agriculture should be exempt from gene technology...because the processing of high-quality foods needs to be GM-free," Alemanno has stated, adding that consumers have the right to choose what they eat.

European consumers are not free to choose what they eat while the EU and member governments continue to block imports containing GMOs. Has Signor Alemanno sacrificed consumer choice to protect Italian farming from competition with these imports? After all, small-scale Italian farmers have perfected the art of sapping the EU for subsidies for inefficient farming they claim is 'organic'.

Opposition to liberalizing the development of GMOs is also rife among environmentalists and non-governmental organisations. On 14 February 2002, a European Commission directive approved the planting of genetically modified vines by wine growers. This provoked uproar from the Italian Green Party, the Slow Food Movement, Greenpeace and the leading Italian environmentalist group Legambiente. Greenpeace Italy has been especially active in raiding farms and factories where activists suspect GMOs are lurking.

EU legislators seem to believe that labelling products containing GMOs will help to overcome such opposition. The EU has now agreed to lift its virtual moratorium on importing genetically engineered food in place since 1998, providing strict labelling is established. France, Austria and Italy have refused to lift their formal moratoriums without new labelling regulations. The new legislation to be voted on in July proposes labels that outline the composition and history of products. Providing such "traceability" is thought to be the key to allaying fears about what we eat.

Unfortunately, offering consumers more information about food with or without GMOs cannot prevent fear. Fear has become part of our culture so that distrust is usually the first response, even when there is no scientific cause for concern. In Europe, this culture of fear has found a focus with foods, especially those containing GMOs. Instead of assuming we are being misled, we need to examine the science and trust those who put forward a convincing case.

Our propensity to panic should not prevent us from enjoying the benefits of genetic modification. Even Italian home-grown products can be improved. A research programme at the University of Milan is aiming to change the genetic composition of around 30 typical Italian foods. This could provide resistance to dangerous viruses and bacteria that may otherwise threaten their existence.

It's time for the EU and European governments to end their restrictions on foods containing GMOs. Then European consumers can decide what food is best to put on the table. Buon appetito!

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