18, 2003: Why are the British so cautious about genetically
modified food? Michael Meacher, the United Kingdom's former-Environment
Minister, recently dropped by Prime Minister Tony Blair from
his cabinet, came to Guelph at the end of July to explain.
The UK is far behind North America in the approval of GM
crops. A report expected this fall on four years of field
trials will set the stage for a possible change in UK policy.
Meacher does not support change. He remains cautious about
growing GM crops in United Kingdom fields for four reasons:
human health, environment, coexistence and labeling.
On health he wants human health testing on a case-by-case
basis. He rejects the substantial equivalence of GM foods
to conventional foods that is the foundation of the North
American approval system.
On environment he identifies concerns not studied in UK field
trials: the impact of fields of genetically modified plants
on soil bacteria and bird populations.
On coexistence he believes that the commercial growing of
GM plants will make farming difficult for organic and conventional
farmers Meacher maintains coexistence will be impossible in
the UK countryside.
On labeling he sided with the right of consumers to know
and choose not to eat GM food. Labeling always raises the
issue: when is food free of genetic modification? Meacher
favored an allowable "contamination" of less than
Listing Meacher's four reasons for caution doesn't tell the
whole story about the British guarded approach to genetically
modified food. There is more going on here.
What's the rush? More than once Meacher asked why North America
was in such a hurry. On this side of the Atlantic, it's because
we believe, or have been persuaded to believe, that GM plants
give farming an economic boost. Meacher rejects this view:
"There is no economic case for GM food in the United
If the British are not persuaded of the economic benefits
to GM food, the questions about health, environment, coexistence
and labeling loom large. We might be persuaded that there
is a production benefit from GM technology but the British
question is: Where's the food benefit? Genetic modification
has yet to demonstrate a benefit - economic or otherwise -
Meacher asked himself: "Will the European Union's moratorium
on the approval of GM foods buckle under the U.S. challenge
through the World Trade Organization. His answer was unequivocal:
Canadians will do well to assume that he is right.
An international trade deal is about every country's consumers
being winners - economic winners. As long as GM food does
not deliver a consumer benefit, what is it doing in a trade
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