2 July 2002
GM AT THE CROSSROADS/BLAIR ORDERS MEPS TO BLOCK LABELLING
1. Blair orders MEPs to block labelling
2. GM at the crossroads
1. Blair orders MEPs to block strict labelling of GM foods
By Marie Woolf Chief Political Correspondent
THE INDEPENDENT , 02 July 2002
Moves to lay down Europe-wide rules on genetically modified (GM) food are expected to provoke a bitter political dispute this week when the Government urges British MEPs to block a strict new labelling regime.
The European Parliament is deeply divided over rules for GM food that would force all products containing more than 0.5 per cent of GM organisms (GMOs) to be labelled.
The Government has sent British MEPs a briefing note urging them to vote against it, arguing that the issue is low on the list of consumer priorities.
The document also suggests that meat from animals fed on GM food should not be labelled and nor should the use of processing aids derived from GMOs. And it says British shoppers are unconcerned about genetic modification and that "GM is very far down the list of consumer considerations with regard to food.
"It is a tiny feature on mental maps of food issues, and does not figure at all for some," the UK briefing says.
Britain's stance has infuriated environmental groups who say consumer surveys consistently show overwhelming opposition to GM foods. They said ministers were "twisting the arms" of MEPs and arguing for a "lax regime" because of pressure from America.
Several EU member states have said they will block new licences for GMOs until a proper regime for traceability and labelling is established. Tomorrow's vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg is intended to help to break Europe's deadlock on GMOs by putting in place new rules.
The European Commission had suggested that products should be able to contain up to 1 per cent of GM material without being labelled, but the environment committee suggested a threshold of 0.5 per cent. Britain has led calls to reinstate the 1 per cent figure.
Adrian Bebb, biotechnology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, accused Britain of being out of touch with the rest of Europe and said that the Government was "in the pocket of the biotechnology industry". He said: "Britain is acting as America's poodle. The Government is more interested in supporting the biotechnology industry and American intensive farming interests than British consumers and the UK food industry."
The British document argues against labelling all food from GM crops and said only those that "actually contain GM material [DNA or protein] which can be verified by testing" should be labelled.
Labour's environment spokesman in the European Parliament, David Bowe, said he wanted a labelling system that marked out food with absolutely no GM content. "People say that is impractical but, frankly, I dispute that," he said.
MEPs share joint responsibility with EU governments for passing the laws and months might be needed to draw up a final policy.
2. GM at the crossroads
A crucial vote tomorrow could determine the future of genetically modified
food in Europe - and put us on a collision course with the US
The Guardian, Tuesday July 2, 2002
As the British government begins what it calls a national debate on GM foods, but which critics argue is a thinly-veiled massaging of the public to accept them, Europe reaches a crossroads. After years of tortuous debate, furious argument and heavy lobbying, the full parliament will vote tomorrow on whether to tighten up the labelling of the controversial foods.
If the commission's proposals are eventually accepted, it could lead to the US government taking Europe to the World Trade Organisation for allegedly restraining trade and also appealing to the European court of human rights.
Both the biotech industry and its critics know what is at stake. The US government has claimed that the labelling proposals could block more than $4bn a year of food exports, and those who don't want to see the spread of the crops recognise it will largely determine whether or not European consumers buy the foods or if farmers grow them. Whichever way it goes, it will lead to the lifting next year of the four-year de facto moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops in Europe.
Current EU regulations require the labelling only of foods or food ingredients which contain 1% of genetically modified DNA or protein. These can be physically tested, but it leaves unlabelled a vast number of processed products derived from GM foods. Vegetable oils and glucose syrup, for instance, are widely used in cakes, confectionery and soft drinks and may be made from GM maize, but at the moment escape labelling.
The commission proposes not only that all GM derivatives are labelled but that a second gap in the present system be plugged too. Tens of thousands of tons of GM maize and soya are imported into Europe from the US each year to be fed to poultry and other animals. The commission proposes that all GM animal feed, and food reared on it, is labelled too.
These proposals horrify GM companies and US agri-business, which from the start of the food revolution in 1995 have resisted GM labelling but have been forced onto the back foot by public concern and legislators around the world. The European status quo is now their fallback position. Any tighter labelling regime, they and the US government argue, could further set back their long campaign to have the foods accepted.
The British government, backed by the food standards agency, sides with the Americans, saying that the proposed regulations would cost too much to implement, would be unenforceable and open to fraud. They say labelling should be confined to products that contain GM material which can be verified by testing, and argue that there are no guarantees that the proposed EU system would provide consumers with greater choice.
In addition, they say, EU traceability and labelling requirements should not inhibit developing countries from developing GM technology. This could become a barrier to trade for farmers in developing countries. Instead of the commission's proposed far wider labelling, they want to see a new "GM-free label", which they argue would be easily understood.
The counter argument, pressed by European socialists, greens and some Liberal Democrats, is based on pub lic opinion and what retailers and some food processors are already doing. According to a 2001 survey, 94% of Europeans want the right to choose whether to eat GM food and 71% do not want to eat it at all. In the UK, 56% want GM labelling even if all traces of the GM raw materials are destroyed during food processing and 79% think that meat and other products from animals reared on GM feed should be labelled.
The food standards agency dismisses the polls but meets opposition from a surprising source. The British retail consortium, which represents large supermarkets, says limiting GM labels to end products in which genetically modified DNA or protein is detectable is too restrictive and would further undermine consumer confidence. Whatever its members may privately think about GM foods, it welcomes the commission's new proposals, since they reflect what most of its members have been doing for some years for their own-brand products.
Many supermarkets and food manufacturers, it says, have already removed both GM soya and maize and their derivatives from products as a direct response to concerns raised by their customers.
The idea of a GM-free label is also dismissed as a non-starter and is described by British watchdog group Genewatch as "untenable, undemocratic, equally open to fraud and even more expensive". Any GM-free label, they say, will need the same paper trail and is no more than what is required of organic, halal and kosher foods. In practice, they say, a GM-free label would mean that some products or ingredients will be labelled as GM, others as GM-free, but the vast majority will not be labelled, even though they may contain GM derivatives.
If passed, these two regulations will fundamentally change the way GMOs and the products derived from them are regulated and controlled in the EU. The whole process of commercialising GM foods would come under the control of the new European food authority and any company wanting to grow GM crops in Europe would only have to apply to one agency, which would send applications to member states. This is resisted by the British government, partly because it would undermine its own role as a friend of the US government and promoter of the crops.
The lobbying in Brussels and elsewhere has been intense on both sides and the vote, which must come back to the European parliament later in the year, is thought to be too close to call. Dozens of amendments have been lodged, many parties and blocks are split, and much could depend on the 29 British Labour MEPs, who are expected to vote with the European socialist block but may come under a government whip and could therefore end up voting with the Conservatives. All parties in the debate are agreed on only one thing - that the present unsatisfactory impasse on GM crops in Europe must change.
John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor
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