CONSUMERS TRUST US GOVERNMENT ON SAFETY OF NEW CROPS
By Aisling Irwin
In America, a nation obsessed with food safety, genetically
modified crops have slipped easily into general use. There was
plenty of opposition to early GM proposals in the late Seventies
and early Eighties but there seems to be little now.
In 1974, two biologists said they could genetically modify living
things. After a meeting in California, known as the Asilomar
meeting, the scientists called their own brief moratorium on
their research while the authorities examined the issue. The US
and British responses to the resulting anxiety were different.
The Americans, citing fears of interference, produced guidelines
on the research; the British produced regulations.
This attitude was echoed a decade later, in 1986, when Britain
opted to create laws dealing with GM foods but the US
considered that existing laws would suffice. Today the
distinction persists: US companies have been able to opt out of
regulation of GM foods once they have proved their safety but
in Britain companies must apply for a permit.
In 1982, two Californian scientists requested permission to test
the Ice minus bacterium which could impede frost production
on strawberries. Ice minus encountered strong opposition and
the case spent years in the courts, delaying field testing until
1987. Ice minus was classified as a pesticide and more or less
disappeared. GM supporters say it was over-regulated to death.
Americans feared biotechnology then. A 1986 survey showed
that 44 per cent believed "we should not meddle with nature".
But regulations were reduced in 1989-90 by the Republican
government and the first real GM "story" arose in 1992, when
the Food and Drug Administration approved the Flavr Savr
tomato, with a gene switched off to prevent it softening.
Dr Thomas Hoban, of North Carolina State University in
Raleigh, US, who regularly surveys public attitudes, said: "The
media ran loads of stories, both pro and con and used all those
words you are experiencing now such as 'frankenfoods'."
But the coverage overall was balanced and no Flavr Savr
tomato products appeared in the shops because, for other
reasons, the tomato was not a commercial success.
It took another two years before the next genetically modified
product was approved. Bovine somatotrophin (BST) is a
substance produced by a genetically engineered bacterium
which boosts milk yield.
Dr Hoban says: "We thought there would be a lot of
controversy but there were just a few stories and they were
balanced. Consumers had very little concern. Someone they
trusted [the FDA] said it was safe."
In late 1995 seven crops received approval but there was
virtually no media coverage. Between 15 and 20 further crops
have now been approved in the US. In 1998, 25 million acres
were planted with genetically modified soya. There is no
requirement for labelling of such foods and little demand from
consumers for it.
American people understand little about the subject but think it
is safe, Dr Hoban has found. Several reasons have been
suggested. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have little
presence in the US. Americans trust their regulatory authority,
the FDA. There is a history of swift response to food scares
and there has been no BSE scandal to erode that confidence.
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