GM food future at a crossroads

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union, Gm

Events over the past few months might have shaped the future of GM
food in Europe for decades to come. FoodNavigator looks at the
decisions that have influenced the proliferation of this
controversial technology.

When Jose Bove was arrested this week for storming Monsanto's facilities in southern France, it had the air of a last, principled stand against the inevitable invasion of GM (genetically modified) food in Europe.

This is because a number of recent decisions appear to have all gone in favour of the biotech industry. Europe's food safety authority announced this week for example that five GM food products banned in some EU member states present no health risk.

"The GMO Panel is of the opinion that there is no reason to believe that the continued placing on the market of Bt176, T25 and MON810 maize, and Ms1xRf1 and Topas 19/2 oilseed rape is likely to cause any adverse effects for human and animal health or the environment under the conditions of their respective consents,"​ said an EFSA statement this week.

In addition, the EC recently adopted an overview of the state of implementation of national co-existence measures. This led to this month's Vienna summit, which formed part of the Commission's consultation process on ways to ensure co-existence.

Although little was decided, the nature of the debate illustrated how far advanced the question of GM crops in Europe has advanced.

"This is not a question of health or environmental protection, because no GMOs are allowed on the EU market unless they have been proved to be completely safe,"​ said Mariann Fischer Boel, commissioner for agriculture and rural development, told delegates.

"But segregation measures must be in place to ensure that accidental traces of GMOs in conventional or organic products are kept within the strict ranges defined by EU legislation."

In other words, food safety is no longer the main arena for conflict the debate has largely moved on to how GM crops can exist alongside conventional crops.

A major catalyst for this paradigm shift was the landmark WTO decision in February, which ruled that the EU and six member states broke trade rules by barring entry to GM crops and foods.

By agreeing with the United States, Argentina and Canada that an effective moratorium on GM imports between June 1999 and August 2003 had been put in place, the ruling effectively opened up the European market to GM food.

This is the point we are at today. Consumer choice has become the ideal that both sides claim to hold.

Anti-GM campaigners argue that GM crops will cause widespread contamination, leaving consumers with no GM-free choice at all. Pro-GM forces on the other hand argue that consumers must be given the choice, and that the WTO ruling backs this up.

Europe's infamous reticence was however once again demonstrated in another EU initiative this week, which aimed to restructure the authorisation process for GM products.

Consumer groups have long complained that EFSA works too closely with biotech companies. But the biotech sector is worried that this new initiative represents a weakening of resolve.

It claims that any move to undermine EFSA's scientific independence would damage consumer confidence in all aspects of food safety but its main concern is that Europe's regulatory body will be open to influence from anti-GM lobby groups.

A GM-free Europe is an increasing impossibility, But the continent remains as uneasy as ever about the introduction of the technology.

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