SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
O T T A W A
Applying labels to novel foods sounds like an easy way to balance theopposing wishes of producers and consumers. The reality is more complex
WHEN it comes to genetically modified food, as with so many things, Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language—this time written in fine print on a can of beans. Along with the rest of the European Union, Britain has decided that any food that bears tell-tale traces of genetic engineering should be labelled as such, so that consumers can choose whether they wish to savour the fruits of new technology. America, on the other hand, reckons that if a genetically tweaked tomato or soyabean has lost none of its normal nutritional value and gained nothing toxic or allergenic in the process, a label is not required, since the souped-up version is “substantially equivalent” to the garden variety.
Such differences of opinion, rooted in national cultures, are not surprising in a business as complex as biotechnology. And on many issues, countries can simply agree to disagree. But genetically modified foods are the stuff of international trade, not just domestic policy. And America, which last year exported 9m tonnes of mixed (modified and unmodified) soyabeans to the EU, takes great interest in how its trading partners handle such commodities.
On April 28th representatives of America, the EU and 36 other countries gathered in Ottawa to discuss the labelling of genetically modified foods at a meeting of a little-known body called Codex Alimentarius. Codex was established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation in 1962 to recommend minimum standards on food safety that all countries should follow. According to Rod Leonard, head of the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington, DC, Codex was a dull operation until the World Trade Organisation (WTO) decided to use its standards in international disputes over food trade. For example, the EU’s ban on imports of hormone-treated beef from America defies Codex’s scientific assessment that such meat is safe, and so constitutes, says the WTO, an illegal barrier to trade.
Trade rows have made recent Codex committee meetings far livelier, especially over genetically modified foods. On the table in Ottawa is a draft recommendation for mandatory labelling of processed foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which largely follows the EU approach. American trade officials, who have complained about the EU rules since they were first formulated in 1997, are keen that they should not spread further by becoming Codex standards. Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, which once supported the American position, have since back-tracked. The argument is aggravated by lobbies such as Consumers International, who want labelling to cover any foodstuff that has its origins in genetic engineering, even if it lacks all trace of engineered DNA or protein.
American trade officials, and some companies in the GMO business such as Monsanto, believe these demands are impractical, unfair and unnecessary. They argue that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the current crop of genetically modified foods is any less safe to eat than traditional commodities. Yet as Geraldine Schofield, head of food regulatory affairs at Unilever, points out the push for labelling in Europe is as much about freedom of choice as about food safety (though European farmers’ desire for protection may also play its part). There are already national review bodies to ensure that genetically modified food is safe before it comes to market. Admittedly, many consumers are unaware of this approval process and some lobbyists argue that it should be tougher. But just as consumers choose to buy “dolphin-friendly” tuna or kosher meat, they may prefer to avoid genetically modified foods because of their personal views on, say, the environment. Surely it is on!
ly fair to give them the tools to do so? Buyer beware
A Eurobarometer survey conducted across the EU last year found that 86% of those questioned believe that food containing GMOs should always be labelled as such. And more than 50% trusted consumer associations to tell the truth about the food supply—twice as many as put their faith in national governments or EU authorities.
This is in contrast to America, where consumer surveys give mixed views on the desire for labelling. As Thomas Hoban, a food sociologist at North Carolina State University, points out, Americans generally have a more relaxed attitude towards food than, say, the French, for whom it is a cultural matter. European qualms about “contamination” of the countryside by genetically modified crops scarcely occur to Americans, whose landmass is big enough to separate its agricultural heartland from rural playgrounds. And though Americans generally mistrust government meddling, they have great confidence in the country’s food and drug regulatory body, the FDA, to ensure that all food, genetically modified or not, is safe.
Even so, Steve Suppan, director of research at the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy, a public interest group in Minneapolis, says that many Americans want more information about genetic modification on the label; and they also want such foods to pass through additional safety trials, as food additives do, before being released on to the market. Some bodies, including the Centre for Food Safety in Washington, DC, have even sued the FDA. Others, like Mr Suppan’s group, are busy lobbying American trade officials, at Codex and elsewhere, for America to bring itself into line with Europe’s more cautious stance on GMOs. Yet such critics find it hard to catch the public’s attention, whereas their European counterparts are often front page news—particularly in Britain, where faith in food safety has already been shaken by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”) and a recent fuss over the effects of genetically modified potatoes on experimental animals.
So it is hardly surprising that Europeans want to make up their own minds about buying genetically modified foods. But quite apart from looming trade disputes with America, labelling is neither an easy nor a cheap fix. Hardly any processed food these days is 100% GMO-free. Even when firms such as Unilever manage to find a source of, say, non-modified soya to put in their products, it tends to get contaminated with genetically modified stuff since there is so much of it about. Trying to keep the two separate on their long trip from field to silo and then from cargo hold to processing plant—a process known as “identity preservation”—requires testing for GMOs at every step of the way. This testing can add an extra 30% to the cost of the final product. And as Dr Schofield points out, this is not a premium that customers are ready to pay, especially since they see no obvious benefits from current genetic engineering. Worse, methods and acceptable “contamination” levels have yet to !
be standardised in Europe.
Attitudes may change when the next wave of genetically modified foods, which have been engineered for consumer-friendly traits such as higher vitamin content, emerge from the laboratory. Some industry analysts reckon this may be the only way out for companies stuck in European consumers’ bad books. One of the first products, DuPont’s high-oleic soyabean, which yields an oil lower in artery-clogging saturated fats, is now awaiting regulatory approval in Europe. Producers will gladly keep such crops “identity-preserved” and clearly labelled, because their value depends on it. So even though labelling is currently controversial, there may one day be a technical fix after all.
Greenpeace’s True Food site monitors news on GM foods from a hostile perspective.
Codex is the American governmental organisation charged with approving genetically modified foods.
Which, the British-based magazine of the Consumers’ Association, has a great deal of campaining material on its website.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s website is here.
Douglas M. Hinds, Director
Centro para el Desarrollo Comunitario y Rural, A.C.
(Center for Community and Rural Development, Non-profit Association)
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