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On August 12, 1999, a McDonald’s restaurant in the French town of Millau became an object of worldwide attention when it was ransacked and demolished by an angry crowd of farmers and ecologists protesting against American “multinationals of foul food.”[1]  Their leader, José Bové, a Parisian intellectual turned activist-farmer, has become the lead figure for European opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and U.S. “culinary imperialism” in Europe.  Backed by international environmental interest groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, Bové has staged several attacks on McDonald’s, which he sees as a symbol of an American-led globalization effort that is threatening the culinary sovereignty of EU member countries and the right of European consumers to eat as they see fit.[2]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Europe, public protests against genetically engineered foods have been mounting for more than three years. The outcry from France and Britain has been particularly loud.  Prince Charles, one of the most prominent figures in the EU campaign against GMOs, has publicly stated that he will not allow any genetically altered food ever to pass his lips.  In his words, the changing of the rules of nature through modern science “takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.”[3] 

Why are Europeans so much more apprehensive about GMOs than Americans?  Some experts claim that behind the politico-gastronomic outcry is a hybrid of cultural and economic fear toward a new technology that is widely perceived to be completely dominated by American multinational corporations.  Alain Duhamel, a French political analyst, believes that a widespread rejection of cultural and culinary dispossession is at the root of the protests.  According to this theory, Europeans are “allergic” to the amount of power the United States has accumulated since the end of the Cold War, and its most virulent expression is culinary sovereignty.[4] As José Bové has stated, what Europeans reject is “the idea that the power of the market place becomes the dominant force in all societies, and that multinationals like McDonald’s or Monsanto come to impose the food we eat and the seeds we plant.”[5] 

Other experts have emphasized the ethical aspect of the issue. Indeed, genetic engineering strikes at our fundamental ability to control the environment in which we live. As American professor Joan Gussow has stated: “Someone is going to produce and subsequently manipulate the materials out of which each of us is made. Are we really prepared to trust that responsibility to Phillip Morris?”[6]

Critics, however, have suggested that the real reason for the heated debate in Europe is nothing less than agricultural protectionism.  According to this theory, Europeans resent the fact that most of the patents on genetically modified high-yield seeds belong to large American corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont and Dow.[7] Biotechnology allows agricultural production to become more vertically integrated, consolidated, and centralized—all in the hands of multinational corporations—and European agricultural interests are scared by the fact that it is American companies that dominate this industry. This viewpoint is somewhat weakened, however, by the EU’s March 2000 decision to extend its temporary moratorium on new GMO approvals by postponing a decision on the sale and marketing of three new GM crops until the summer.  According to EU sources, the decision to postpone the approvals was made based on “insufficient information” for the two new GM varieties of rapeseed and one variety of fodder beet.[8]  All three varieties had been produced by European biotechnology companies: AgrEvo, Danisco, Hoechst AG, and Shering AG. 

The truth behind Europe’s opposition to GMOs is undoubtedly a mix of all these factors. Regardless, it is also true that the many benefits of biotechnology are not always so obvious to the consumer.  In a nutshell, while consumers have been promised foods that taste better, are more nutritious, and will help “feed the world,” the applications of biotechnology to date have failed miserably in delivering any noticeable consumer benefits. For example, the introduction of BGH/BST, a genetically engineered drug that makes cows produce more milk, has not translated into lower prices for consumers.[9] Similarly, at least one study found that just 7% of the $200 million gained by planting Bt cotton went to consumers—42% and 35% went to farmers and Monsanto (the gene patent holder) respectively.[10] The public’s attitude towards GMOs in Europe is not likely to change until the biotechnology industry successfully manages to inform and convince consumers of the merits of this new technology.

 

Europe’s Concerns About Biotechnology 

In light of the recent public health scares in Europe, such as the outbreak of mad cow disease and the dioxin contamination in Belgium, it is perhaps not surprising that food safety has become a top priority for the EU Commission.  Each successive crisis has further eroded consumers’ trust in the capacity of the food industry and in the authorities who are ostensibly in charge of monitoring and ensuring the highest standards of food safety.[11] 

Europeans are also greatly concerned about biotechnology issues such as animal welfare, sustainable agriculture, and consumers’ right to information. And environmental protection is of particular concern. In France, the UK, Germany, and the Nordic countries, the Green Parties continue to enjoy significant political leverage, and in the EU Parliament, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Green MPs (from 26 in 1994, to 38 in 1999).[12]  Not surprisingly, the European Green Parties have taken a very firm stance against GMOs.  They have argued that not enough scientific testing has been done to determine the effect of GMOs on the environment; any premature release of GMOs into the environment, they have warned, could result in serious disruption, if not devastation, of the ecosystem.   

Among the EU member states, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Greece have been the most vocal in calling for ethical considerations to be taken into account when approving new GMOs.[13] In Sweden, the Green Party and the Swedish chapter of Friends of the Earth have launched a nationwide campaign calling for a five-year moratorium on the production, sale, and licensing of GMOs.[14] Traditionally, the Green Parties of the Nordic countries, as well as those of Spain, Italy, and Greece, have been politically affiliated with the Socialist Parties.  However, in light of the tremendous public outcry over GMOs, other parties have also expressed the need to proceed with caution in matters related to biotechnology.

 

Consumer Calls for Mandatory Labelling  

Europeans have consistently demanded that genetically modified food be labelled in order to enable consumers to make informed choices about the products they buy.  Consumers’ right to information is clearly outlined in the Amsterdam Treaty, the legal framework for European integration, and as public awareness of GMOs has increased, so too have the demands for complete information on production methods and product labelling.  In a 1998 survey, 86% of Europeans called for mandatory labelling of genetically modified food.[15] Commissioner Byrne has publicly supported consumers’ right to information, and has called on regulators and food producers to make certain that these demands are met.[16]   

One of the points made in support of mandatory labelling is that GM foods have the potential to cause allergic reactions. It is a scientific fact that genetic engineering can introduce unknown allergens into food because virtually every gene transfer results in some protein production, and proteins are what trigger allergic reactions.[17]  If a person is at risk for an allergic reaction to a conventional food, he or she can avoid exposing himself/herself to that allergen by checking the food label, which typically identifies all the ingredients.  However, if a person has a reaction to a genetically engineered food product and the label does not disclose the presence of GMOs, it is impossible to know what specifically caused the reaction and what to avoid in the future.[18]   

Another argument in support of mandatory labelling of genetically modified products rests on the fact that many Europeans find GMOs objectionable for ethical or religious reasons. These individuals have demanded their right to know whether the products they consume contain spliced genes from animals or species that are proscribed by certain religions.  Labelling would allow these consumers to make purchasing decisions that do not conflict with their beliefs.[19] 

 

Attempts to Address Public Concerns About GMOs 

In response to public concerns about food safety, the European Commission is working to improve legislation on GMO labelling and to create a legal framework for a “GMO-free” line of products (to which producers may adhere on a voluntary basis). The Commission has also recommended that the European Working Party on Ethics in Science and New Technology be consulted prior to allowing any new products that contain GMOs to be placed on the market,[20] and it recently issued a white paper that outlines 80 separate actions for making relevant EU legislation more coherent, responsive, and flexible. The white paper includes specific proposals for dealing with GMO-related issues such as the application of the precautionary principle in risk management decisions and the introduction of adequate procedures for food traceability.  It also calls for the establishment of an independent European Food Authority with responsibility for risk assessment and risk communication.[21] 

Within the private sector, several groups of European distributors have joined forces in a bid to rid their supermarket shelves of GM products, regardless of what EU legislation on the issue may stipulate. In March 1999, Sainsbury’s (the U.K.’s second leading supermarket chain) announced that it would no longer accept genetically modified ingredients in the production of its brand products.  Sainsbury’s decision was subsequently adopted by the other six distribution members of the Sainsbury consortium: Marks and Spencer (U.K.), Carrefour (France), Effelunga (Italy), Migros (Switzerland), Delhaize (Belgium), and Superquinn (Finland).[22] As early as February 1997, Novartis (a giant Swiss agribusiness, chemical and drug company) announced its intent to advocate that all genetically engineered crops and foods be clearly labelled.[23]  The head of Novartis’ agribusiness unit, Wolfgang Samo, explained the move stating: “There is no need [for labels] from a scientific and safety standpoint, but if we believe in the consumers’ right to choose, the industry cannot reasonably argue against labels facilitating this choice.”[24]



[1] Roger Cohen, “Fearful Over the Future, Europe Seizes on Food.”  The New York Times.

August 29, 1999.

[2] Kenneth Klee, “Frankenstein Foods?” Newsweek. September 13, 1999, p. 33.

[3] Specter.

[4] Cohen.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lisa Y. Lefferts, “Safety and Choice: Key Consumer Issues for Genetically Modified Foods.” Economic Perspectives. Vol. 4, No. 4, October 1999.

[7] Craig R. Whitney, “Europe Loses its Appetite for High-Tech Food.” The New York Times. June 27, 1999.

[8] Andrew Osborne, “EU Keeps Moratorium on New GM Crops.” Reuters. March 9, 2000.

[9] Lefferts.

[10] Greg Taxler and Jose Falck-Zepeda, cited in Shereen El Feki.

[11] Speech by Mr. David Byrne.

[12] http://www.greenparty.uk.org (February 13, 2000).

[13] Nordic Business Report, June 14, 1999.

[14] http://www.mjv.se/mat/upprop2.html (February 13, 2000).

[15] Speech by Mr. David Byrne.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lefferts.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] European Report, June 19, 1999.

[21] Though there are many similarities between this proposed agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Authority would not have any regulatory powers and hence would not get into the area of risk management.  Any decision-making with regard to risk management would continue to be the responsibility of the EU Commission, Parliament, and Council of Ministers.

[22] “Genetic Engineering: European Retailers Join Forces Against Transgenic Food.” Europe Agri. March 19, 1999.

[23] Barnaby J. Feder, “Biotech Firm to Advocate Labels on Genetically Altered Products.” The New York Times. February 24, 1997.

[24] Ibid.

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