12, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Elisabeth Rosenthal,
International Herald Tribune, 10-6-4: Some
are smokers. Some drink too much. Some admit they love
red meat. But virtually all shoppers here at the Migros
Supermarket on the bustling Rue des Paquis are united
in avoiding a risk they regard as unacceptable: genetically
modified food. That is easy to do here in Switzerland,
as in the rest of Europe, where food containing such
ingredients must be labeled by law. Many large retailers,
like Migros, have essentially stopped stocking the products,
regarding them as bad for public image.
"I try not to eat any of it and always read the
boxes," said Marco Feline, 32, an artist in jeans,
getting onto his bike (with no helmet). "It scares
me because we don't know what the long-term effects
will be - on people or the environment."
The majority of corn and soy in the United States is
now grown from genetically modified seeds, altered to
increase their resistance to pests or reduce their need
for water, for example. In the past decade, Americans
have happily - if unknowingly - gobbled down hundreds
of millions of servings of genetically modified foods.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there have
been no adverse effects, and there is no specific labeling.
But in Europe - where food is high culture, if not religion
- farmers, consumers, chefs and environmental groups
have joined voices loudly and stubbornly to oppose bioengineered
foods, effectively blocking their arrival at the farms
and on the tables of the Continent. And that, in turn,
has created a huge ripple effect on trade and politics,
from North America to Africa.
The United States, Canada and Argentina have filed
a complaint that is pending before the World Trade Organization,
contending that European laws and procedures that discriminate
against genetically modified products are irrational
and unscientific, and so constitute an unfair trade
U.S. companies like Monsanto, which invested heavily
in the technology, suffered huge losses when Europe
balked. As part of a public relations effort, the U.S.
State Department enlisted a Vatican academy last month
as a co-sponsor of a conference in Rome, "Feeding
a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology."
In response to such pressure, the European Union has
relaxed legal restrictions on genetically modified foods.
In May the EU approved for sale a genetically modified
sweet corn, lifting a five-year moratorium on new imports.
Last month the European Commission gave its seal of
approval to 17 types of genetically modified corn seed
for farming. But no one expects a wide-open market.
"We have no illusion that the market will change
anytime soon," said Markus Payer, spokesman for
Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness company whose BT-11
corn got the approval in May. "That will only be
created by consumer acceptance in Europe." "There
is currently no inclination among European consumers
to buy these things," Payer went on. "But
the atmosphere of rejection is not based on facts. That
is a political, cultural and media-driven decision.
And so we are convinced that more and more consumers
will see the benefits."
Indeed, the battle lines between countries for and
against genetically modified foods seem to be hardening.
Several African countries, following Europe's lead,
have rejected donations of genetically engineered food
and seeds. In Asia, reluctance appears to be spreading.
While countries like China and India are enthusiastically
planting biotech crops like cotton, genetically modified
food crops are having trouble winning approval. Africa's
rejection is based partly on health and local environmental
concerns, but also on economic interests: Zambia and
Mozambique have discovered a good market in selling
unmodified grain and soy to Europe, supplanting the
United States as European suppliers. Mauro Albrizio,
vice president of the European Environmental Bureau,
a policy group based in Brussels, said: "In the
U.S., genetically modified foods were a fait accompli;
here in Europe we succeeded in preventing that."
Genetically modified foods arrived on America's dinner
plates with little fanfare in the mid-1990s as large-scale
farmers in the United States enthusiastically started
planting the seeds, which increased production and reduced
the amount of pesticide required. Convinced that bioengineered
food was "at least as safe as conventional food,"
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that
a bioengineered lemon was the same as an ordinary lemon,
and did not require special labeling or regulation.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the genetically modified
crops in the world are grown in the United States, mostly
corn and soybeans. "In the U.S., a large part of
the diet is actually bioengineered," said Lester
Crawford, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug agency.
"The first thing other nations want to know is
how many illnesses or adverse reactions we've seen,"
he added. "But we haven't actually had any problems
at all with bioengineered foods." Vast amounts
of money are at stake. Believing that genetically modified
foods would quickly catch on throughout the world as
they had the United States, large biotech companies
like Monsanto invested billions of dollars.
Since the late 1990s the European Union has required
that all food containing more than tiny amounts of genetically
modified materials be labeled, and that all genetically
modified products be submitted for approval before sale
in Europe. No products were approved during an informal
moratorium from 1998 to 2003. In the past five years,
many parts of Europe have enacted local bans on growing
In fact, most scientific panels have concluded that
"foods derived from the transgenic crops currently
on the market are safe to eat," in the words of
a recent report from the UN's Food and Agricultural
Organization. But the report also cautioned that crops
must be evaluated case by case.
And low risk is not no risk. The 87 member states of
the UN-sponsored Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety required
labeling this year of all bulk shipments of food containing
genetically modified products. The United States has
not signed the pact.
More important, though, is that the assessment of risk
depends largely on the degree of proof that a country's
"In their personal lives people take lots of risk
- they drive too fast and bungee-jump - but for food
their acceptance of risk is very low," said Philipp
H¸bner of the Basel-Stadt Canton Laboratory in
Switzerland, which tests products in that country for
contamination with genetically modified organisms. But
H¸bner sees his work as detecting fraud in labeling
rather than as safeguarding the public health.
"For most scientists it is not so much a safety
issue, but an ethical and societal question," he
said. "This is what the public here has chosen,
like Muslims choosing not to eat pork." In a survey
by the European Opinion Research Group in late 2002,
88.6 percent of Europeans listed the "quality of
food products" as an environmental issue with health
implications. But health fears, which can move markets,
are not always consistent. In some parts of Europe,
like Bordeaux, that have declared themselves free of
genetically modified organisms, energy is supplied by
nuclear power plants.
To sell Sugar Pops cereal to European consumers, Kellogg's
imports unmodified corn from Argentina and spends extra
money to make sure that the entire transportation and
processing chain is free of bioengineered products,
said Chris Wermann, a company spokesman. The same cereal
contains genetically modified corn in the United States.
Both varieties contain all the usual sugars, artificial
colors and flavors.
European advocates defend their right to be finicky.
"This is not ideology - it's a pragmatic stand
because of potential risks to health and the environment,"
said Albrizio of the European Environmental Bureau,
noting that there is some evidence that genetically
modified crops may trigger more allergies.
In terms of agriculture, there are some very clear-cut
effects, since genetically modified seeds tend to spread
in the environment once they have been planted, making
it hard to maintain crops that are organic and free
of genetic modification. Scientists call this phenomenon
To environmentalists and especially to farmers, "co-mixing"
it is potentially devastating "contamination."
That is why the farmers of Tuscany and 11 other regions
of Italy have declared themselves free of bioengineering.
In fact, European farmers and consumers have so far
created a firewall against genetically modified organisms,
one that the changing laws and World Trade Organization
challenges may not breach easily.
"In theory you could sell GMO products here, with
labeling," H¸bner said. "But I'm not
aware of any products that are now being sold, because
no store wants them on their shelves."