British public uneasy about transgenic crops

LONDON, United Kingdom, September 26, 2003 (ENS): The prospect of speedy progress towards commercialization of genetically modified crops in the European Union was weakened Wednesday by publication in the UK of a report confirming strong public opposition to foods altered through biotechnology.

The report summarizes findings from a government sponsored public debate conducted this summer through more than 600 meetings across the UK.

It says that most participants "expressed unease" about genetically modified technology and its possible impacts on human health, the environment, and "broader social and political issues."

More than 37,000 people participated in the consultation, which was the most wide ranging to date in Europe. The findings come at a time of heated debate across the EU on the future of genetically modified food in Europe.

Many people said they felt badly informed about genetic modification. But the study revealed that hostility towards genetic modification grows stronger with increased knowledge. The more people learned about the technology, the more likely they were to harbor strong concerns about the risks involved, particularly the long term effects on human health.

There was mistrust of politicians and multinational companies, and particularly in their motives, intentions and behavior. The public believes that big businesses are primarily driven by profit considerations rather than responding to the needs of society, and that they have too big an influence in the political decision making process.

There was a strong feeling that more research was needed to establish a set of widely agreed "facts" to serve as a basis for political decisions. Commercialization of genetically modified crops should only be started when clear benefits to society have been demonstrated, many participants said.

Environment Minister Margaret Beckett said the government would "reflect carefully" on the findings.

Alongside a scientific review and a cost-benefit study, the public debate is one of the elements on which the government will base its decision on GM crops commercialization, probably next year.

The results of this public consultation come at a time that the United States, on behalf of its biotechnology companies, has launched a dispute process against the European Union at the World Trade Organization over the EU's reluctance to approve genetically modified crops for field trials. Several European countries have refused for the past four years to permit the planting of biotech crops.

Meanwhile, the Spanish biotech association Antama held a high profile pan-European press event on Wednesday in the Spanish region of Catalonia in a bid to demonstrate that commercial growing of genetically modified maize has been a success and that conventional and organic farms have been able to coexist with it.

Industry tests have revealed very little accidental presence of genetically modified grains in organic crops. However, the picture has been less clear-cut regarding the presence of genetically modified organisms in conventional crops.

Research into the extent to which pollen from genetically modified plants is likely to contaminate non-GM crops is being undertaken by the Spanish government's food research institute, and results are expected soon.

{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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