Corn-trarians

Europe has lifted a ban on genetically-modified corn. Will Europeans buy it?


Bt-11 sounds more like a robot than a type of sweet corn. Public anxieties over the lab-designed “frankenfood” drove European officials in 1999 to ban it from stores. Yet as of Wednesday the crop, which resists the cornborer pest and a common herbicide, can be sold in the European Union. The E.U. effectively lifted its six-year moratorium on selling genetically-modified foods by giving the nod to Bt-11.

The corn’s Swiss-based maker, Syngenta, which has spent millions testing safety, applauded the decision, as did the $20 billion biotech industry generally, which for years has been itching to pitch its products on the European market.

Transgenic crops now account for 5 percent of the world’s food supply and their use is rising by 15 percent a year. They are common in America, but Europe, Africa and Asia have been less than eager to approve them. “We’re not happy about the number of years we’ve had to wait,” a spokesman from biotech trade group EuropaBio told reporters.

Yet European consumers, wary of the long-term effects, as yet unknown, of modified foods, are very reluctant to eat them. A whopping 70 percent of Europeans told E.U. pollsters they wouldn’t buy altered foodstuffs. “There certainly aren’t going to be any rushes at the supermarket,” a campaigner for Friends of the Earth told the German daily Deutsche Welle.

Still, the Food Safety Authority (equivalent, more or less, to the U.S. FDA, has already given a green light to GMO foods. Last month 15 E.U. nations failed to decide whether to allow the altered corn onto the market, sending the decision to the executive European Commission. Only four of 30 commission members voiced doubts about repealing the ban. Critics of the decision charge bureaucrats in Brussels with disregarding popular opinion.

The battle over GMO pits the business sector, which is pushing for radical innovations, against those who urge caution before mainstreaming genetically modified organisms. Both sides have blown the debate out of proportion.

Profits and efficiency drive the argument of corporations, which also purports to hold the key to solving world hunger. A United Nations report this week praised biotech crops, which produce high yields, for their potential to help the world’s poor farmers. Muscular new crops enriched with vitamins can withstand disease and drastic weather, often obviating the need for pesticides.

The scientific verdict isn’t in on the long-term safety of GM foods. Most short-term studies show no obvious harm, although some consumers complain of allergic reactions. For environmentalists, the widespread sowing of altered seeds moves the laboratory outdoors, polluting other crops through cross-pollination. They fear that designer plants resistant to some diseases could, say, trigger the development of super-strains of viral or bacterial blight.

The green groups don’t trust corporate claims of goodwill and fear the creation of a biological monoculture dictating what people eat. They’re scared by companies like Syngenta and Monsanto Corp., and their now-scrapped plans to pitch barren “terminator gene” crops that would force farmers to buy new seed each season and possibly render neighboring plants infertile. They dislike industry attempts to take crops used for centuries out of the hands of mom-and-pop farmers by patenting genetic strains.

Environmentalists who cheered last week when Monsanto ditched efforts to sell a new modified wheat strain in the U.S. and abroad are now less happy with what they see as Europe’s pandering to business. Activists horrified by the Bush administration’s environmental assaults have generally smiled upon Europe as an eco-friendly foil to the United States.

Meanwhile, the United States is leading a dozen countries in a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s ban. Despite this week’s decision, the WTO case is unlikely to rest because Europe’s head office is expected to take its time reviewing 33 applications for new, modified crop strains.

The open door to Syngenta corn will last for one decade, at which point European officials can re-evaluate it. By that time GMO foods are likely to be more widespread in European markets. The Economist foresees a long-term biotech win:

As more studies have been completed on the effects of GM crops, the green lobby’s case against them has weakened. Little evidence has emerged of health risks from eating them. And, overall, the studies have shown that the environmental effects of modified crops are not always as serious as the greens claim. Nevertheless, environmentalists continue to find fault with such studies and argue that they are inconclusive.

Up to now, food manufacturers and retailers, and thus their customers, have not had to pay a big premium for GM-free ingredients. But this may change if present trends continue and it gets harder to find non-GM sources for such ingredients as soya oil and maize syrup…GM-free foods will, of course, continue to be on offer-though they are likely to start costing more, as “organic” foods already do. Though it will be a long time before they are as laid-back about GM foods as Americans are, Europe’s nervous consumers may increasingly be forced to choose between their phobias and their wallets.

Biotech advocates claim that the free market will decide the long-run fate of GM foods. However, the industry has gone out of its way to thwart consumer choice and force a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice. It has lobbied to prevent U.S. labeling that would tell a shopper if the corn chips in hand derive from modified seed.

Not so in Europe. A law that went into effect there in April demands that companies mark any food containing 0.9 percent engineered ingredients. At least European shoppers, whether their fears are founded or not, can make informed decisions.

Picky consumers who reject modified foods are motivated not just by fear, but because they view shopping as a political exercise that can reward or punish companies’ policies. And to many Europeans, food is integral to cultural heritage and artistic expression. This view is spreading in America, where a growing backlash against corporate-produced foods is evident in popular films like “Super Size Me” and books like Fast Food Nation.

A Christian Science Monitor editorial, however, finds the debate over DNA-spliced foods growing softer, allowing potential benefits, “less use of pesticides, higher yields in arid lands, better nutrition, etc. – to finally become more widespread.”

The depolarization may finally have arrived for several reasons. Science has become more advanced in foreseeing possible damage to plants or humans. And GM products already introduced haven’t caused any harm (the EU had introduced 18 biotech plants before the moratorium).

But also, Europe’s scientists warn the EU risks falling behind the US in this potentially huge market.

Compromises are possible if geneticists reduce their arrogant certainty and those groups that purposely play up the scare factor aren’t allowed to dominate policy.

Then a hybrid of views and actions can be allowed to grow.