|return to : MA Projects | Previous Page|
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
All three varieties had been produced by European biotechnology
companies: AgrEvo, Danisco, Hoechst AG, and Shering AG.
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.
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.
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.
Concerns About Biotechnology
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
Calls for Mandatory Labelling
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Address Public Concerns About GMOs
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,
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
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).
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.
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.”
Roger Cohen, “Fearful Over the Future, Europe Seizes on Food.”
The New York Times.
Kenneth Klee, “Frankenstein Foods?” Newsweek. September
13, 1999, p. 33.
Lisa Y. Lefferts, “Safety and Choice: Key Consumer Issues for
Genetically Modified Foods.” Economic Perspectives. Vol. 4,
No. 4, October 1999.
Craig R. Whitney, “Europe Loses its Appetite for High-Tech
Food.” The New York Times. June 27, 1999.
Andrew Osborne, “EU Keeps Moratorium on New GM Crops.” Reuters.
March 9, 2000.
Greg Taxler and Jose Falck-Zepeda, cited in Shereen El Feki.
Speech by Mr. David Byrne.
(February 13, 2000).
Nordic Business Report, June 14, 1999.
(February 13, 2000).
Speech by Mr. David Byrne.
European Report, June 19, 1999.
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
“Genetic Engineering: European Retailers Join Forces Against
Transgenic Food.” Europe Agri. March 19, 1999.
Barnaby J. Feder, “Biotech Firm to Advocate Labels on Genetically
Altered Products.” The New York Times. February 24, 1997.