Fri, Jul 25, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Battle over GM foods continues as governments press ahead


European consumers are expressing strong opposition to the introduction of genetically modified foods to their supermarket shelves.

Evidence that genetically modified (GM) crops do not always bring the promised advantages is partly the reason for the opposition, but it is rather the fear of the unknown and anxiety over long-term consequences that the scientists have not worked out.

Relatively few would express themselves in the religious tones adopted by Britain's Prince Charles when he addressed the Soil Association, representing the interests of organic farmers, four years ago, but the prince's words nevertheless struck a chord.

"Mixing genetic material from species that cannot breed naturally, takes us into areas that should be left to God. We should not be meddling with the building blocks of life in this way," he said.

In France, public opinion is extremely hostile to bio-engineered foodstuffs. One reason is certainly the influence of environmental groups and activists, such as globalization foe Jose Bove.

A more fundamental reason is that the French have a powerful and traditional attachment to what they call "terroir," a term referring to locally grown produce and regional cuisines.

The French tend to believe in the slogan "You are what you eat."

As a result, French public opinion generally supports activists like Bove who have been convicted of destroying genetically modified rice or corn grown for research.

After the French Academy of Sciences published a report last December in favor of research with genetically modified organisms, several of its members were physically threatened, insulted or otherwise harassed.

But the Academy's decision suggests that a slow change is coming. Earlier this year, the National Institute of Agronomic Research announced it was resuming experiments with genetically modified grapevines, which it had ceased in 1999 due to public pressure.

The idea is to create a vine resistant to a disease that chemicals cannot stop. If they succeed, the French may be drinking genetically modified wine in the not-to-distant future.

In Italy, recent opinion polls show nearly 70 per cent oppose GM foods. Close to half of the respondents to an official poll said they considered GM food "dangerous" while four out of five Italians said they were prepared to spend more to eat healthier food.

In the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, the most outspoken critic of GM is Agricultural Minister Gianni Alemanno of the post-fascist National Alliance, who has called for "zero tolerance" on GM foodstuffs imported into Italy.

There is disagreement within the government, however. According to Alemanno, his Industry Ministry colleague, Antonio Marzano, a member of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, is more open to GM.

There are experimental GM fields, particularly in the northeast of Italy, which are regularly raided by Greenpeace activists. Last year, magistrates in Turin placed 10 producers under investigation for allegedly importing hundreds of bags of genetically modified maize seeds without labeling them adequately.

Coop, a major Italian supermarket chain, was the first to ban GM from its labeled products.

"We have a prudent approach to GM because its effects on people's health are not yet known with certainty," Coop's director of communications, Aldo Bassoni, told reporters.

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