Is Europe ready to embrace GMOs?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm foods, Genetically modified food

The German government has reached an agreement on the regulation of
genetically modified crops. After months of bitter argument, the
ruling coalition has finally put forward a proposed genetic
engineering law that will allow GM food to be grown and sold in
Germany.

However, producers will be obliged to clearly label all foodstuffs containing GMOs. The bill is designed to achieve a balance between farmers who wish to grow GM crops and consumers who continue to demand the right to choose between GMO and non-GMO foods.

Politicians are confident that, despite the continued controversy surrounding the issue of GMOs, the bill will achieve a happy medium of sorts. "We have come to an agreement,"​ said agriculture and consumer affairs minister Renate Künast in the Berliner Zeitung​ newspaper. "The law will be passed by the cabinet in February."

The draft specifically states that all GM foods must be clearly labelled. But there are fears that consumers could still be left in the dark if the genetically modified elements can no longer be detected - as could be the case in animals that have been fed GM foods.

The issue is likely to become a major test of EU strength. For it is the European Union, not the individual countries, that is responsible for authorising GM products for sale among Member States. Indeed, the new raft of German legislation comes in response to a European Parliament law passed in July that effectively lifted a five-year moratorium on the sale of GM foods in Europe as long as they are properly labelled.

The difficulty for Germany, and any other Member State attempting to pass a similar bill, is that GMO foods continue to face a great deal of public opposition. Consumer scepticism is high, and many supermarkets continue to be reluctant to stock GM foods.

There is no scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are dangerous to people's health. But that has done little to close a gap in thinking between Americans and Europeans over bio-engineered crops and food.

Last year, the US government filed a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regarding the European Union's policy on genetically modified food. This followed heavy lobbying by big US-based biotechnology multinationals like Monsanto. The US argued that EU reluctance to take GM foods is an illegal barrier to free trade.

But the different stances taken by the US and Europe over the issue of GM foods goes deeper. GM technology is generally viewed with scepticism in Europe and numerous surveys show that health and environmentally-conscious consumers tend to question the food on their plate before swallowing it.

However some, like Bernard Marintelli from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), have identified a narrowing of this gap. "This has happened for two reasons,"​ he says. "If you look at surveys in the US, there has been a small increase in the number of people that have concerns over GMOs, primarily due to the negative coverage of the issue from Europe. This means that from virtually no opposition, there now exists low opposition to GM foods."

He contrasts this with what is happening in Europe.

"In 1997 to 1998, GM was not a public issue - hardly anyone had heard of it,"​ he says. "We then went through the eye of the storm in 1999 to 2000 where there was a large amount of opposition. But if you look at recent surveys, there is now a small core in favour, a small core opposed and a large chunk in the middle driven by issues of taste and price rather than safety."

Marintelli also sees the EU-imposed moratorium on the farming and import of GM foods and grains in 1998 as primarily a politically-motivated moratorium.

"This moratorium was introduced due to a lack of consumer acceptance,"​ said Marintelli. "But many of the objections concerned with ensuring consumer choice such as labelling and traceability have been covered by legislation."

Marintelli told FoodProductionDaily.com​ that he believes the European Commission will shortly recommend to all Member States that objections over GMOs have been answered. The EU is to vote on new approvals on the 18th of April."The regulations are in place to ensure that consumers have choice,"​ he said.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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