Success of Engineered Foods Depends on Consumer Trust

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 25, 2001 (ENS) - The United States and Europe appear to be on a collision course over the regulation of genetically modified food, according to senior government policy advisors speaking Wednesday at a Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology dialogue, entitled, "Are the U.S. and Europe Heading for a Food Fight Over Genetically Modified Food?"

"Both the U.S. and EU [European Union] governments have the same goal regarding food policy: ensuring food and environmental safety," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "However, each government has embarked on a disparate approach to the issue, reflecting different experiences, political philosophies and cultures. As a result, it may be hard to avoid a major 'food fight' over agricultural biotechnology commodities."

soy

U.S. soy harvest in progress; 68 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified (Photo courtesy American Soybean Association)
The value of US-European agricultural trade is estimated at $57 billion, and some in the U.S. agriculture community are concerned that a new European Union proposal could be a barrier to much of that trade. The EU proposal, adopted by the European Commission (EC) this summer and now pending in Parliament, which is expected to be implemented by early 2003, requires that all food or animal feed containing or derived from genetically modified organisms be labeled.

The proposal would also require documentation tracing biotech products through each step of the grain handling and food production processes.

"Unless we restore EU consumer confidence in this new technology, genetic modification of food is dead in Europe," said Tony Van der haegen, Minister-Counselor for Agriculture, Fisheries and Consumer Affairs of the European Commission. "The Commission's July labeling and traceability proposal is intended to be a first step to increase that confidence."

The U.S. agricultural community warns that the EC proposal would particularly affect U.S. corn gluten and soybean exports because a high percentage of those crops are genetically modified (26 percent of U.S. corn and 68 percent of soybeans are genetically modified).

"Our government has an effective regulatory system to ensure the safety of foods derived from modern biotechnology," said David Hegwood, trade advisor to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "We believe biotechnology is an important tool that can help to increase food production, preserve natural resources, and improve health and nutrition throughout the world."

corn

Field of genetically modified corn; 26 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (Photo courtesy Novartis)
"We continue to express serious concerns about the EC's July 25th proposal for traceability and mandatory process based labeling," Hegwood added. "We believe the EU proposal would disrupt international trade without serving any legitimate food safety or environmental safety objectives."

But European officials say their citizens have more concerns than Americans about the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods, and for good reason.

"The European experience with food safety and environmental issues is quite different than the American experience: consumer confidence has been eroded due to food scares in the past, in addition to the way the biotech industry has handled the issue in Europe," said Van der haegen. "Moreover, serious scientific mistakes were made (BSE or 'mad cow' could not jump the species barrier, so said the scientists, who were later proven wrong). As a result, science is no longer a quality label any more in Europe."

"Although genetically modified foods may even be safer than conventional products, our consumers are nevertheless demanding that we in government protect their 'right to know' the content and origin of the food they consume," concluded Van der haegen. "Until now, in a context of food surplus, GM food has no added value, so why take the risk, the EU consumer is asking."

European consumers are not the only ones with concerns about GM foods. Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental and consumer groups in the U.S. launched a new campaign to prevent the commercialization of genetically engineered fish, citing potential negative health effects and threats to wild salmon.

salmon

The larger of these salmon has been engineered to grow faster and larger than the wild type salmon below (Photo Greenpeace)
The groups are asking seafood retailers to pledge not to sell genetically engineered fish and to oppose their commercialization. An application is pending for market approval of an experimental salmon developed by Aqua Bounty Farms (also known as A/F Protein).

"Consumer safety, environmental groups and some in the seafood industry are calling on restaurants and grocery stores to pledge not to sell genetically engineered fish in order to keep the natural supply from being contaminated," said Linda Setchell, campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action New England. "If the market for transgenic fish disappears, so will the drive to rush this untested technology into the marine environment."

Developers of GM fish call the campaign "misguided."

Elliot Entis, president of Aqua Bounty Farms, Inc., told the "World Catch News Network" that human health and environmental safety can only be addressed by scientific research.

"Politically orchestrated campaigns of fear and intimidation do nothing to advance our understanding," Entis said. He criticized the campaign for failing to recognize "the multi-layered regulatory process these fish will be subjected to before they can be raised on a commercial farm."

tacos

Hundreds of products were pulled from store shelves last year when a strain of transgenic corn not approved for human consumption turned up in foods like these Taco Bell taco shells (Photo courtesy Kraft Foods)
The Pew Initiative's policy dialogue on GM foods, one in a series hosted by the Initiative, was offered in an effort to stimulate an informative discussion about the political, economic and cultural differences between the European Union and the United States regarding the regulation of genetically modified food.

Julia Moore, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Tuesday, "In Europe there is a 'crisis of confidence' in both science and government. A large percentage of the public does not agree with the national and international science and regulatory bodies that deem [genetically modified organisms] safe."

"If a trade war is looming, it will not be about food," said Moore. "Rather, it will be about who the public trusts to make choices about 21st century technologies and who they see benefiting from the science."

More information about the Pew Initiative dialogue is available at: http://www.pewagbiotech.org/events