Seeds of doubt

The European commission is desperate to make progress on genetically
modified food, but individual countries remain deeply divided
John Vidal
Friday October 18, 2002
The Guardian

This morning several large biotechnology companies will dust off their
four-year-old applications to grow GM crops in Europe, and resubmit them
to the EU commission with a few additions. Another hurdle to their
growing them commercially has, technically, been overcome.

But there will be no champagne in the corporate boardrooms to celebrate
EU directive 2000/18, which became law yesterday after 18 months' delay.
The EU has not allowed any new GM food or crops to be licensed since
1998, and the reality is that it will take at least another year before
Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont and other companies get approval for their
crops, and far longer than that before they are planted on a wide scale.

Despite the directive coming into force, Europe this week is as confused
and divided as ever about GM foods. After years of squabbling, wrangling
and disagreements, new proposals have been drawn up by the commission's
Danish presidency. They have come in two parts - food and animal feed,
and labelling and "traceability" - with the idea that together these
will provide better safety testing and consumer choice. With these
planks in place, the commission has thought, the way would be clear for
the crops to be authorised. 

Fat chance. Europe's council of agricultural ministers met on Monday in
Luxembourg, and failed to agree. The commission had proposed that all
food containing more than 1% of GM products should be automatically
labelled, but Sweden insisted on "zero tolerance", Austria and Italy
called for far tighter limits, while France and others were in favour of
the compromise. 

The Danish presidency, keen to make progress on GM issues, also proposed
that individual states should be allowed temporarily to authorise the
sale of new GM products. This would have allowed small amounts of GM
foods to be sold in Europe for three years without being labelled. This,
too, fell flat - supported only by Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Spain,
with other countries pushing for a different system. 

With the farm ministers having failed to reach agreement, the GM baton
passed yesterday to Europe's environment ministers to discuss labelling
and traceability. Last week there were strong rumours that they would
take the chance to propose lifting the effective moratorium on growing
the crops. But with far too much uncertainty on the major points of
contention addressed by their agricultural colleagues, and with issues
of financial and environmental liability barely touched on, they also
got themselves into a muddle and failed to agree. 

The whole process will almost certainly now go forward to more meetings
in November, and then to conciliation. By then, Britain will be in the
middle of its debate and the food standards agency, which has largely
informed British policy, will be reconsidering its whole GM position. 

For the companies and the European commission, the grindingly slow,
impossibly twisting European road to legal acceptance of the crops gets
ever more bogged down. The companies claim they have lost $12bn
(GBP7.7bn) of sales in the past four years, and the commission is now
coming under mounting pressure from impatient US trade officials.
Everyone in the commission wants the US off its back and an end to the
whole vexed affair. 

The commission has tried to raise the stakes and has lately pushed Irish
health and consumer affairs commissioner David Byrne to argue that
people are now ready to accept the foods, and that Europe must act to
prevent the biotechnology field being hindered "by emotional reaction
and apprehension". 

He and others have played up threats of a trade war with the US in order
to influence ministers and voters, but few people believe that the World
Trade Organisation will want to act before the European political
process has been exhausted - probably in 2004. 

The companies are prepared to hang in because the European market is so
large and potentially lucrative, but their patience is wearing thin.
They accept that even if member states do eventually agree on regulatory
labelling and all the other outstanding issues in the next year, some
countries may never allow them to be grown commercially for domestic
political reasons. Like the euro, GM may never be acceptable in some

It is a war of attrition, with both sides saying that time is on their
side and putting on a show of optimism. The companies believe that the
political momentum in favour of the crops is now building and that
governments are getting fidgety. They say that farm groups, which just
four years ago were not interested, are now asking them for the
technology and say that consumers are less hostile. 

Their best hope now is that, as more countries around the world pass
legislation allowing the crops to be grown and sold, so Europe will
become politically and technologically isolated. It will not be long,
they say, before many more European politicians start shouting for the
continent to catch up with the likes of China and India. Given Europe's
strong consumer protection laws, they believe consumers will eventually
come to trust the foods, and that member states will have no scientific
or social excuse left to stop them. 

But they also know that even when European politicians do reach
agreement, the decision on whether to let farmers grow the crops will
eventually come down to national politics, and any country will still be
able to say no. 

Unfortunately for the companies and the commission, the formidable
coalition of national and international environment, consumer,
development and faith groups which vehemently opposed the introduction
of the crops four years ago has not disappeared and is confident of
being able to crank up concerted opposition whenever it has to. By then,
directive 2000/18 may be only dimly remembered.

John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor