If nothing else, the opening decade of the 21st century will go down in the annals of time as the period the world went to war over GMOs. When it comes to genetically modified organisms, passions run deep and the path to reconciling polar opinions - if indeed possible - is likely to be long and arduous.
As French anti-GMO campaigner Jose Bove continues his globetrotting in the quest to urge populations to reject GM crops, the US government is taking Europe to a WTO dispute panel, convinced that the 15 member states are acting against the rules by upholding a ban on GM crops and foodstuffs.
Consumers associations are pitted against the biotech industry, global governments against each other, and even at a regional level, local councils are nominating themselves as non-GM zones.
But rumours that the Commission could be asking member states to vote on introducing new genetically modified crops and food products by the end of the year has set the cat among the pigeons.
"The European Commission is trying to get the GM sweet corn, known as "Bt11", approved quickly before new legislation comes into force in November which would subject the modified vegetable, made by Swiss-based Syngenta, to more rigorous new tests," said UK environmental group Friends of the Earth this week commenting on a recent document compiled by the Commission.
The document, essentially an information note, states that "the scientific risk assessment has been completed for two applications, a GM sweet maize from Syngenta (Bt11) and a GM field corn from Monsanto (GA21)... It is expected that the validation process will be completed in October for Bt11 and at a later stage for GA21."
Friends of the Earth contends that the Commission is trying to push Bt11 through a vote under the previous, 'weaker' Novel Food Regulations before tough new rules on the labelling of food and animal feed containing GMOs arrive in April 2004.
Under the new European Commission regulation on GM food and feed, all ingredients that contain or consist of genetically modified organisms, or contain ingredients produced from GMOs, will need to be labelled as such.
A threshold of 0.9 per cent will apply for the accidental presence of GM material, below which labelling of food or feed is not required. There will also be a 0.5 per cent threshold for the presence of GM material that has not been approved for use in Europe, provided it has a favourable safety assessment from the European Union scientific committees. This latter threshold will apply for three years.
"The Commission's behaviour is disgraceful," said Friends of the Earth Europe's GM campaigner Adrian Bebb. "It is caving in to US pressure and trying to ram through GM foods using out-dated laws rather than protecting the interests of the public. If the Commission gets its way, there is a big chance that these foods would get to the market unlabelled," he added.
New rules on GMOs principally came to life because of two reasons. Firstly because the European consumer demanded it, and secondly, since 1998 Europe has upheld an unofficial ban refusing to endorse any new GM crop authorisations -no new GMOs pending approval could be imported or grown in the EU. Certain member states insisted that the ban had to remain until the EU agreed tough rules on planting GM crops and ensured the traceability and labelling of all GM food and feed.
As of April 2004, this will be the case.
When the rules were passed earlier this year, observers widely believed that the move would clear the way for an end to the five year GM moratorium. The Commission document cited this week by Friends of the Earth shows this is indeed the case.
But before deeper concerns in the anti-GMO camp set in, let's not forget one key fact. Consumers will vote at the checkout. As long as the shopper steers away from GM foodstuffs, large scale production of biotech crops in Europe is likely to be a long way away.