European Scientists Reject EU Biotech Ban

Published July 1, 2003

Leading scientific academies in Britain and France have expressed support for a multinational World Trade Organization suit against the European Union’s ban on genetically improved crops.

England’s Royal Society and France’s Academy of Sciences report a consensus among their members that genetically improved crops are at least as safe for human consumption as are crops without genetic improvements.

Royal Society Speaks Up

The Royal Society, described in the May 3 edition of the London Times as Britain’s “leading scientific institution,” announced on May 2 it could find no scientific evidence that genetically enhanced foods pose any risks to people or animals.

“We conducted a major review of the evidence about GM (genetically modified) plants and human health last year, and we have not seen any evidence since then that changes our original conclusions,” said Patrick Bateson, vice president of the Royal Society. “If credible evidence does exist that GM foods are more harmful to people than non-GM foods, we should like to know why it has not been made public.

“We have examined the results of published research, and have found nothing to indicate that GM foods are inherently unsafe,” Bateson added. “If anybody does have convincing evidence, get it out in the open so that it can be evaluated.”

The Royal Society’s announcement came as tension was building over a World Trade Organization (WTO) suit to be filed against the European Union. The suit was filed less than two weeks later by more than a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Canada Derides EU Protectionism

“The EU would have us believe that its ban is motivated purely by environmental and consumer safety concerns,” asserted a May 25 house editorial in Canada’s National Post. “But not once has it cited any real evidence that proves GM foods are a danger to anyone’s health. Indeed, the only verifiable difference between regular and GM crops is that, because the latter are grown from scientifically engineered seeds, they require fewer chemicals to remain pest-free. That means farmers need to spend less time spraying and are able to increase their crop yields.

“The real reason the EU is punishing our farmers, of course, has less to do with consumer safety than with trade protectionism,” the Post continued. “Unless the EU produces real evidence that its moratorium is motivated by something other than protectionism, the WTO will have little choice but to rule in the complainants’ favor.”

EU Choosing Protectionism

“The EU, for political reasons, has steadfastly refused to follow the advice of their own scientific review committees that have always found that the genetically modified crops are safe and do not pose significant environmental risks,” said Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). “That is impermissible under the rules of the WTO.”

“Giddings is right,” reports Reason Foundation science correspondent Ronald Bailey. “Even EU scientific societies like the French Academy of Sciences say that the current criticisms against plant biotechnology are scientifically ‘unfounded.'”

Giddings, however, warned that even a successful WTO claim would not necessarily end a de facto moratorium. The EU, in fact, is promising to end the moratorium on its own–once it finishes designing and implementing regulations to track and label foods resulting from genetically improved crops.

“Leaving the directives on traceability and labeling as they are would make lifting the moratorium moot. In fact, implementing the traceability and labeling directives is an even more effective way of killing trade in biotech food and crops than the moratorium itself,” noted Giddings.

Reason’s Bailey explained why: “The new plant biotechnology regulations are merely a moratorium by other means. The new EU regulations would require labeling of all foods containing 1 percent or more ingredients from GM foods. The new regulations would also require ‘dirt to fork’ traceability of foods incorporating ingredients made from GM crops.

“For example,” Bailey continued, “a cookie made with corn syrup from pest-resistant maize would have to be labeled as containing GM ingredients, even though it contains no modified genes at all, just plain old sugars like glucose, dextrose, and maltose. Corn syrup may be bad for your waistline, but genetic engineering doesn’t make it any worse or better. In the meantime, the entire supply chain would have to keep and maintain expensive records of exactly where each batch of glucose came from.”

Other Nations Side with U.S.

Other nations, including many with little economic interest in the debate, have signed on with the U.S. claim. New Zealand, for example, does not produce genetically enhanced crops, but feels compelled to support the complaint.

“New Zealand has a strong interest in defending the integrity of the international trading system, in particular the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement which requires members to set health-related standards based on scientific evidence and risk analysis,” said New Zealand Acting Trade Negotiations Minister Phil Goff.

“Our participation does not mean that we wish to promote New Zealand exports of GM crops. We do not produce GM grains or oilseeds and are not likely to. But the way to deal with consumer fears is to ensure they have proper information and that a sound regime is implemented for any restrictions on particular products,” Goff said.

The co-leader of New Zealand’s Green Party, Jeanette Fitzsimons, disagreed, claiming genetically enhanced crops are “inherently unpredictable, and GE foods have never been tested for safety.

“It is ironic that the prime minister lectured the European Policy Center just a few weeks ago on the benefits of ‘fair’ trade … because there’s nothing ‘fair’ in trying to use the dogma of international fair trade regulations to force GE food down the throats of people who don’t want it,” said Fitzsimons.

New Zealand Greenpeace spokesman Steve Abel chastised the WTO complaint and questioned the motives of its signatories. “To launch a WTO case to help the desperate genetic engineering industry to market its unwanted GE products is an insult to the European public,” he said.

The Royal Society’s Bateson defended European scientists. “The public have a right to decide whether they want to buy GM foods, and are entitled to have access to sensible and informed advice, based on sound science. It is disappointing to find a group like Greenpeace stating on its website that ‘the risks are enormous and the consequences potentially catastrophic,’ without offering any solid reasons to support such a claim.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].