Sunday, February 14, 1999
The furore over genetically modified food during the past week has
generated heat and no light. But it seems clear there are dangers to the
environment and possibly to individual health. Multinationals based in the
United States - notably Monsanto - have been too quick to press the
advantages of GM food given the level of knowledge and the suspicions of
consumers. The US government has put American farming profits before
public health in a vast, uncontrolled global experiment.
On the other hand GM food products could be a great boon. Genetic
modification could raise the nutritional content of food, offer better
insect resistance for some crops and some, too, can be modified to last
longer after harvesting. The question is whether these advantages are
offset by the risks. The onus is on those who want to sell GM food to
prove it is safe, not the other way around. Requiring that GM food should
be labelled - which the Government is expecting to announce next week - is
the least it could do, given the degree of public concern. Some scientists
may regard that response as excessive and whipped up by hysterical
reporting, but the right of consumers to choose whether or not to eat GM
food should be respected.
Even this concession will be contested by the Americans, in part because
they mix up GM and non-GM food for export so that disentangling GM food
for labelling now is next to impossible.
The British Government must be resolute. The US has brought this upon
itself by trying to impose its own standards on the rest of the world.
Within the European Union there is no commercial production of GM food,
and the US should be reminded that British food buyers always have the
option of buying European products if American companies do not comply
with British law. The time has come to be tough, and until genetic
modification is proved safe, to respect the anxieties of consumers in
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