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Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
GM food debate rages on
Police advance on protesters   PA
Worries over GM food have sparked protests in Europe

EU environment ministers are meeting in Luxembourg to discuss the regulations on the labelling of genetically modified food. The BBC's Martin Webber takes a closer look at the debate surrounding genetically modified food on both sides of the Atlantic.

The United States appears to have backed away from a fight with Europe over genetically modified crops - for the time being at least.

The new less aggressive approach from Washington comes in spite of the fact US biotech giants are unlikely to be allowed to sell new GM seeds to farmers in Europe any time soon.

Back in February, the US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, threatened to take Europe to the World Trade Organisation if it didn't start approving new varieties of GM crops.

Mr Zoellick said Europe's delaying tactics were "totally unacceptable."

Eight months later, however, American anger seems to have eased.

Suspicious mindset?

The new American tactics seem to arise from the realisation that the vast majority of consumers in Europe remain highly suspicious of GM technology.

Two men in crop field   BBC
Farmers are worried about GM genes blowing into their crops
European leaders still won't approve any new GM products, insisting on a new system for tracing and labelling genetically altered foods.

Those new rules will be discussed at a meeting of environment ministers in Luxembourg on Thursday.

But progress isn't expected to be fast, and French officials have said it could take another year for arrangements to be sorted out.

BSE's legacy

The problem is that shoppers simply aren't convinced by scientists who claim not to have found any health risks of GM food.

In the wake of the BSE crisis, consumers wonder how hard the experts have been looking.

Such concerns are also supported by some scientists.

Dr Vivian Howard, a toxicologist at Liverpool University, describes as "totally inadequate" the technique of "substantial equivalence", which allowed GM crops in America to bypass normal testing procedures.

The "substantial equivalence" principle meant that companies like Monsanto simply had to show that GM foods were chemically pretty much the same as non-GM varieties.

More study needed

Mr Howard told the BBC's World Business Review programme that there was a need to check if the new foods were toxic for infants and what other biological effects there might be.

Plants and ploughed field   BBC Elvis
Many customers are turning to organically-grown food
Mr Howard used the example of the thalidomide drug that was widely used in the 1960s before it was discovered to be dangerous.

"Thalidomide caused a very rare and very obvious deformity, and the medical profession picked up on it," he said.

"If, for example, thalidomide had caused cleft palate, we still probably wouldn't know, because that's a rather common condition."

Mr Howard argues that, with respect to GM food technology, no baseline studies have been done.

"You don't know where you've started from, and, if this was, for instance, making a difference to the levels of allergy in the population, there's no way of actually finding that."

Global divisions

It's not just in Europe that Monsanto has been encountering opposition to its technology.

While GM crops are approved in Argentina, the expected winner of Brazil's presidential election, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has said he will uphold his country's GM-free status.

Many Brazilian farmers get premium prices on world markets for their non-GM crops.

Monsanto's case hasn't been helped by the recent resurgence of interest among consumers in buying organic foods grown using more traditional farming methods.

The threat posed by pollen from GM varieties blowing into organic fields is now seen in Europe as a potentially significant cost.

Seed pollution

The so-called "pollution" from the GM crops has also led to a fierce debate in Canada after Monsanto successfully prosecuted a 70 year old Canadian farmer for growing its crops without paying the usual fees to the company.

The farmer, Percy Schmesier accepted that Monsanto's patented gene was present in his crop of oil-seed rape, which is known in America as canola.

But Mr Schmeiser claimed that Monsanto's gene had got there by accident after being blown in from neighbouring fields.

Alarmed farmers

Mr Schmeiser told the BBC that he'd lost his case because the judge ruled it was the responsibility of farmers to keep Monsanto's gene off its fields.

Mr Schmeiser said the verdict had alarmed farmers all over the world.

"It means the complete control of the farmers," he said, explaining that farmers would not sow their own seed for fear of Monsanto's seed blowing onto land and cross-pollinating crops.

A spokeswoman from Monsanto's Canadian division said that Mr Schmeiser knew - or ought to have known - he was growing the company's patented canola.

Lost cause?

She agreed that GM canola could blow around fields accidentally, but told the BBC that it was up to farmers to contact Monsanto so the company could remove any unwanted GM plants.

Mr Schmeiser has already appealed against the verdict, but lost his case last month.

He's now hoping to raise enough money for an appeal to Canada's supreme court.

But the farmer has already spent his life savings fighting the case.

World Business Review from April 2001
"It means the complete control of the farmer"
World Business Review from February 2002
"European consumers are worried"
See also:

24 Jul 02 | Scotland
03 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
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