Transatlantic split persists over GM food
Transatlantic split persists over GM food
Note the article
below states "the longer-term and more serious impact for
Europe may lie beyond GMOs, in more sophisticated
agribiotechnologies to develop modified foods that carry a
particular health benefit – such as reducing the incidence
of diabetes. Some of that research is being carried out in
Europe, including a project called Lipgene, involving 25
laboratories across Europe co-ordinated by Trinity College,
Dublin, which is working on a linseed oil to contain fats
that occur in fish oil and have cardiovascular benefits. But
more advanced and large-scale efforts are under way in the
Last month Kellogg, the cereal maker, said it would put in its baked products a type of soyabean oil developed by Monsanto that eliminates the need for hydrogenation, a process that normally creates harmful fatty acids."
However, according to a GM Watch report, this latter trait has come from conventional plant breeding - the only GM aspect of this soya plant is that it is herbicide resistant, a trait that has been around for ten years. If correct, this would appear to be another classic case of biotech spin doctoring in order to mislead the public into thinking GM technology is delivering benefits which don't in fact exist.
Why trust these people on anything?
NATURAL LAW PARTY
Tearing Down Biotech's 'Berlin Wall'
The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech
split persists over GM food
By Raphael Minder and Jeremy Grant
Published: January 31 2006 19:56 | Last updated: January 31 2006 19:56
At the cereal aisle of the Safeway supermarket in Washington’s Tenleytown district, Ellen O’Brien scans the shelves. She picks out a box of Wheaties, made by General Mills, and turns to eye jars of Smucker’s Goober Strawberry peanut butter.
Does she know cereals and peanut butter may contain genetically modified ingredients? “I have to say I’m blissfully unaware,” says Ms O’Brien, who works in healthcare finance. Like most American shoppers, she accepts that three-quarters of processed foods sold in the US contain GM organisms. But in Europe, GM food is absent from supermarkets and remains a subject of much consumer suspicion.
A study produced for the International Food Information Council last year showed that fewer than 0.5 per cent of American consumers identified food biotechnology as a safety concern. In contrast, a Eurobarometer opinion poll across the 25-nation European Union found that 54 per cent considered GM food to be dangerous. It is a transatlantic divide that will be thrown into renewed stark relief this month as a landmark trade dispute between the two regions comes to a head.
The World Trade Organisation is about to rule in a case brought against the European Union in 2003 by the US, Canada and Argentina, which claim that an EU moratorium on the approval of GM foods and crops, introduced in 1998, lacked scientific basis and created an unfair trade barrier. The case has significance beyond the moratorium, which the EU argues has in any event become all but obsolete following its enactment of stricter labelling and tracing legislation and the limited resumption of product approvals in May 2004, when the EU gave clearance to a GM corn developed by Syngenta.
Instead, the ruling will be important in efforts
by the US to prevent
European GM concerns from spreading, especially to Asia and Africa.
David Bullock, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, says with a neatly chosen metaphor: “The US is trying to nip things in the bud.’’
GM crops – first grown in the three nations that brought the WTO case – now cover 90m hectares (222m acres) in 21 countries. Summing up the challenge for American farmers – for whom exports already represent one-quarter of their cash receipts – Richard Crowder, the chief US agricultural negotiator, says: “As incomes rise in the rest of the world and our market further matures, trade will be ever more important for agriculture.”
Since the first commercial amounts of GM soyabeans, cotton and maize were planted in 1996, US farmers have become increasingly reliant on the advanced crop types produced through genetic modification. The technology involves selecting specific genes from one organism and introducing them into another to produce traits – such as drought-resistance or resilience against pests – that can increase farmers’ harvests. About 85 per cent of soyabeans, 76 per cent of cotton and 45 per cent of maize planted in the US in 2004 were of GM varieties, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
US President George
W. Bush once provocatively invited visiting European leaders
to the White House dining room with the words: “Let’s go and
eat some genetically modified food for lunch.” In Europe,
few politicians are willing to endorse GMOs – and some even
avoid condemning the burning of trial fields by anti-GM
activists such as José Bové in France. Patrick Rudelsheim, a
specialist on European GM regulation who supervised field
trials for several leading GM companies, says: “A field
destruction in itself is a serious investment loss, but
perhaps more depressing is the subsequent lack of support
from the authorities. It’s often pure
judicial laisser faire.’’
At the retail level, Europe’s GM clock has arguably been turned back in the past decade. The little GM food that was available, notably tomato purée sold in the UK by the Sainsbury and Safeway chains in 1996, was subsequently removed from the shelves amid a wider food safety debate. Today, one European supermarket executive says, it would be “almost commercial suicide’’ to sell GM food.
Ragnar Löfstedt, professor in risk management at King’s College London, identifies three main reasons for Europe’s aversion to GM food. First, he argues, Americans’ trust in their Food and Drug Administration is far greater than that of Europeans in their own health regulators (the wariness dating as far back as the 1960s Thalidomide birth deformities scandal). Second, the US has avoided food scandals on the scale of the “mad cow’’ crisis of the 1990s, which led to a decade-long ban on British beef exports. That coincided with the first GM crop trials and brought “a knee-jerk reaction’’ by the EU in its decision to stop approving new types of GM products in 1998.
Third, Prof Löfstedt and others stress, was a faulty communications strategy by GM companies, in particular Monsanto of the US, the industry leader, when it targeted Europe. He says: “Monsanto was not culturally sensitive enough to realise the potential for a European public backlash. GMOs, rightly or wrongly, are perceived to be an American issue and Europeans don’t like Americans to tell them what to do.’’
Europeans have therefore remained sceptical about whether GMOs are harmless, notably when it comes to growing GM crops alongside traditional produce, where strains can cross- pollinate. American politicians and GM scientists argue that the burden of proof lies the other way, namely to find evidence that GM crops cause harm. Jonathan Ramsey, a Monsanto spokesman in Europe, says European consumer perceptions will shift, adding that people had “reflected on the scare stories that were around 10 years ago on super weeds and fish genes in tomatoes and have come to see that this was actually scaremongering”.
Yet the real
ideological – and commercial – battleground for GMOs is
increasingly in the developing world. Alarm was raised in
the US when
Zimbabwe in 2002 refused an aid shipment of US grain because it might have contained GM maize. The debate has also been intense in countries such as Zambia and Ethiopia. The US has tried to strengthen its case by arguing that GM crops can alleviate poverty, not least since they eliminate the need for poor farmers to budget for inputs such as insecticides. Officials have pointed to agricultural progress in countries such as Brazil, which almost doubled its GM crops last year to 9.4m hectares, the fastest growth rate worldwide.
However, many environmental and consumer groups contest those benefits. In a report last month focusing on Monsanto, Friends of the Earth underlined some of the paradoxical aspects of GM farming in the developing world – including an alleged increase in the use of herbicides to combat weeds that have grown tolerant to Roundup Ready soyabeans, a leading GM crop. The result, according to Charles Margolis of the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, a non-profit advocacy group, is that “companies like Monsanto are now telling these farmers to use really toxic chemicals. It’s a joke.’’
In spite of such scepticism – and regardless of the WTO case – the US can point to signs that it is starting to win the argument on GM acceptance globally, according to recent statistics on the extent of GM crop plantings. A study produced last month by the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation showed that developing countries have adopted GM crops at four times the pace of developed economies in the last decade. Of the 8m farmers growing such crops globally, 90 per cent were located in developing countries.
Acceptance of GMOs is receiving a further boost with the emergence of largely government-backed research into the technology in China – which is developing a strain of rice rich in vitamin A – (see below right) as well as work in India and even Iran, which joined the GM-growing club last year.
Experts say such developments may have more effect than any WTO pressure on Europe to relax its opposition to GMOs. Even within the Vatican it is recognised that GMOs can have a role in reducing poverty (see below left). But the short-term prospects for GM farming in Europe remain unclear. Of the four countries that started or resumed GM crop production last year, three were EU members: Portugal, France and the Czech Republic. However, that has been countered by growing regional opposition to GMOs – 172 regional governments across Europe have sought or implemented bans on GM crops, according to Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaign group.
At a national level, Switzerland’s voters rejected GM crops in a referendum last November. Maria Rauch-Kallat, health minister of Austria, which currently holds the EU’s presidency, says she believes her country’s “strict resistance’’ to GMOs will remain. “Like others in Europe, Austrians are very close to nature. Our vision of a good society is certainly not one where everybody is allowed to do whatever is technologically possible.’’
According to GM proponents, the first consequence of such resistance is that Europe is losing corporate investment. They cite Syngenta, which in 2004 started moving its biotechnology research headquarters from Britain to the US “to be in a more positive environment for this kind of work”. Christian Verscheuren, director-general of CropLife, a trade association representing Monsanto and other leading GM companies, says: “The industry has not given up on Europe but it has considerably scaled back.”
But the longer-term
and more serious impact for Europe may lie beyond
GMOs, in more sophisticated agribiotechnologies to develop modified foods that carry a particular health benefit – such as reducing the incidence of diabetes.
Some of that research is being carried out in Europe, including a project called Lipgene, involving 25 laboratories across Europe co-ordinated by Trinity College, Dublin, which is working on a linseed oil to contain fats that occur in fish oil and have cardiovascular benefits. But more advanced and large-scale efforts are under way in the US. Last month Kellogg, the cereal maker, said it would put in its baked products a type of soyabean oil developed by Monsanto that eliminates the need for hydrogenation, a process that normally creates harmful fatty acids .
executive director of the Pew Initiative, says:
“There is some potential that the European industry could be left behind with regard to other kinds of applications [for GMOs]. If you have a regulatory and political climate that is not conducive to R&D, they [Europeans] could end up losing out.” Europeans might not take readily to Goober Strawberry peanut spreads, with or without genetic tweaks. But for the world food business, even in Europe, gene modification is fast becoming what could be described, not just metaphorically, as a bread-and- butter issue.