Food Safety Much Higher in Europe than in United States
GM Food Makers Refuse to Disclose Untested Ingredients to Americans, But They Do It in Europe
Do you have a right to know the ingredients of the food that you and your children eat? In Europe you do. In a free market you do. In a just society you do. But in the U.S., corporate lobbyists continue to fight against food safety, and in favor of secrecy for untested ingredients.
Here are portions of a report from the International Herald Tribune.
Europe closes ranks on bioengineered food
by Elisabeth RosenthalSome are smokers. Some drink too much. Some admit they love red meat. But virtually all shoppers here at the Migros Supermarket on the bustling Rue des Paquis in Geneva are united in avoiding a risk they regard as unacceptable: genetically modified food.
That is easy to do here in Switzerland, as in the rest of Europe, where food containing such ingredients must be labeled by law. Many large retailers, like Migros, have essentially stopped stocking the products, regarding them as bad for public image.
"I try not to eat any of it and always read the boxes," said Marco Feline, 32, an artist. "It scares me because we don't know what the long-term effects will be -- on people or the environment."
The majority of corn and soy in the United States is now grown from genetically modified seeds, altered to increase their resistance to pests or reduce their need for water, for example. In the past decade, Americans have unknowingly gobbled down hundreds of millions of servings of genetically modified foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration claims there have been no adverse effects, and there is no specific labeling.
The Progress Report observes -- that claim is false. There were adverse effects, for example, in the much-reported case of Starlink corn, when that GM corn was illegally added to human food. Apparently the FDA simply does not track the issue, so it does not find problems. If your police department never bothers to record cases of murder, can it claim that there have been no murders?But here in Europe -- where food is high culture, if not a religion -- farmers, consumers, chefs and environmental groups have joined voices to loudly and stubbornly oppose bioengineered foods. By simply exercising freedom of choice, rather than restrictions, they are effectively blocking the arrival of GE foods at the farms and on the tables of the continent. And that, in turn, has created a huge ripple effect on trade and politics from North America to Africa.
The United States, Canada and Argentina have filed a complaint that is pending before the World Trade Organization contending that European laws and procedures that discriminate against genetically modified products are irrational and unscientific, and so constitute an unfair trade barrier.
U.S. companies like Monsanto, which invested heavily in the technology, suffered huge losses when Europe balked. As part of a public relations effort, the U.S. State Department enlisted a Vatican academy last month as a co-sponsor of a conference in Rome, "Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology."
The Progress Report observes -- there has never been a year when the world did not have enough food to feed every human being. People are starving in this world because of problems with access and distribution, there is no problem with producing enough for all. And by the way, there is even some evidence that bioengineered crop yields go down after a few years, not up.
In response to such pressure, the European Union has relaxed legal restrictions on genetically modified foods.
In May the EU approved for sale a genetically modified sweet corn, lifting a five-year moratorium on new imports. Last month the European Commission gave its seal of approval to 17 types of genetically modified corn seed for farming. But no one expects a wide-open market.
"We have no illusion that the market will change anytime soon," said Markus Payer, spokesman for Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness company whose BT-11 corn got the approval in May. "That will only be created by consumer acceptance in Europe. There is currently no inclination among European consumers to buy these things. But the atmosphere of rejection is not based on facts. That is a political, cultural and media-driven decision."
The Progress Report observes -- if Syngenta wants facts, perhaps it should stop complaining and run some scientific studies. So far, what little scientific evidence has been accumulated indicates severe safety problems for GM foods. In any case, people should be free to reject foods for any reason they like -- scientific, religious, whimsical, aesthetic -- or no reason at all. Consumers should not have to justify their choices nor receive a foodmaker's permission not to buy their stuff.
Indeed, the battle lines between countries for and against genetically modified foods seem to be hardening. Several African countries have now rejected donations of genetically engineered food and seeds, following Europe's lead.
In Asia, the desire for safety appears to be spreading. While countries like China and India are enthusiastically planting GM/GE biotech crops like cotton, genetically modified food crops are having trouble winning approval.
Opponents of genetically modified foods "suggest that it is better for thousands to die than for hungry people to risk eating the same corn that Americans have been eating every night for the last nine years," Jim Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said at the conference there last week.The Progress Report observes -- that man is out of touch with reality. He is either ignorant or lying or both. GM foods have nothing to do with relieving hunger, and why doesn't he care about safety for his own citizens? America needs diplomats who are pro-America, not pro-corporate lobbyists.Africa's rejection is based partly on health and local environmental concerns, but also on economic interests: Zambia and Mozambique have discovered a good market in selling unmodified grain and soy to Europe, supplanting the United States as European suppliers.
"In the U.S., genetically modified foods were a fait accompli; here in Europe we succeeded in preventing that," said Mauro Albrizio, vice president of the European Environmental Bureau, a policy group based in Brussels.
Genetically modified foods arrived on America's dinner plates with little fanfare in the mid-1990s as large-scale farmers in the United States enthusiastically started planting the seeds, which increased production and reduced the amount of pesticide required. Convinced [by corporate lobbyists who offered no scientific support] that bioengineered food was "as least as safe as conventional food," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that a bioengineered lemon was the same as an ordinary lemon, and did not require special labeling or regulation.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the genetically modified crops in the world are grown in the United States, mostly corn and soybeans. "In the U.S., a large part of the diet is actually bioengineered," said Dr. Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the FDA.
Vast amounts of money are at stake. Believing that genetically modified foods would quickly catch on throughout the world as they had the United States, large biotech companies like Monsanto invested billions of dollars. At the same time, industry analysts said, companies turned a deaf ear to Europeans' love affair with food, as well as their food fears in the wake of mad cow disease.
Since the late 1990s the European Union has required that all food containing more than tiny amounts of genetically modified materials be labeled, and that all genetically modified products be submitted for approval before sale in Europe. No products were approved during an informal moratorium from 1998 to 2003. In the past five years, many parts of Europe have enacted local bans on growing such foods.
And low risk is not no risk. The 87 member states of the UN-sponsored Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety this year required labeling of all bulk shipments of food containing genetically modified products. The United States has not signed the pact.
More important, though, is that the assessment of risk depends largely on the degree of proof that a country's consumers demand.
"In their personal lives people take lots of risk -- they drive too fast and bungee-jump -- but for food their acceptance of risk is very low," said Philipp Hübner of the Basel-Stadt Canton Laboratory in Switzerland, which tests products in that country for contamination with genetically modified organisms. But Hübner sees his work as detecting fraud in labeling rather than as public health.
"For most scientists it is not so much a safety issue, but an ethical and societal question," he said. "This is what the public here has chosen, like Muslims choosing not to eat pork."
In a survey conducted by the European Opinion Research Group in late 2002, 88.6 percent of Europeans listed the "quality of food products" as an environmental issue with health implications.
To sell Sugar Pops cereal to European consumers, Kellogg's imports unmodified corn from Argentina and makes sure that the entire transportation and processing chain is free of bioengineered products, said Chris Wermann, a company spokesman. The same cereal contains genetically modified corn in the United States. Both varieties contain all the usual sugars, artificial colors and flavors.
European advocates defend their right to be concerned about safety. "This is not ideology -- it's a pragmatic stand because of potential risks to health and the environment," Albrizio of the European Environmental Bureau said, noting that there is already some evidence that genetically modified crops may trigger more allergies.
In terms of agriculture, there are some very clear-cut effects, since genetically modified seeds tend to spread in the environment once they have been planted, making it hard to maintain crops that are organic and free of genetic modification. Scientists call this phenomenon "co-mixing."
But to safety experts, free market advocates, consumers, environmentalists and especially to farmers, it is potentially devastating "contamination." That is why the farmers of Tuscany and 11 other regions of Italy have declared themselves free of bioengineering.
"Here in Italy every area has its own dishes that are tied to the local farming," said Andrea Ferrante, a small, serious man with a black beard who owns an organic vegetable farm in Viterbo. "So for us this is about food sovereignty, about the right of a community to decide how its food its grown.
"We don't know if genetically modified seeds are bad for health. What we do know is that it will kill our farming."
In fact, European farmers and consumers have so far created a firewall against genetically modified organisms, one that the changing laws and World Trade Organization challenges may not breach easily.
"In theory you could sell GMO products here, with labeling," Hübner said. "But I'm not aware of any products that are now being sold, because no store wants them on their shelves."
|Also see Fred Foldvary's editorial on Genetically Manipulated Food|
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