18 October 2002
SEEDS OF DOUBT - THE GUARDIAN
"...the commission has thought, the way would be clear for the crops to be authorised. Fat chance... 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."
Seeds of doubt
The European commission is desperate to make progress on genetically
modified food, but individual countries remain deeply divided
Friday October 18, 2002
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 countries.
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
ngin bulletin archive