GENEVA, October 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 barrier.
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
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 such foods.
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 consumers demand.
"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
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
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."