Frankenstein or Benign?

By Falkner, Robert | The World Today, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Frankenstein or Benign?


Falkner, Robert, The World Today


Genetic engineering and its application in agriculture are at the centre of fierce public controversy in Britain and in continental Europe. Demands for stricter regulation of biotechnology are growing rapidly in the European Union. Meanwhile, recent efforts to reach international agreement on the safety of trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have failed, largely because of American intransigence.

A TRANSATLANTIC GULF is emerging over the risks and benefits of biotechnology - there is even talk of a potential future trade conflict between the United States and Europe. Considerable commercial interests as well as environmental concerns are at stake. The international biosafety controversy provides further indication that environmental and human health values are increasingly interfering with the international politics of trade liberalisation.

The debate on genetic engineering in Britain has recently erupted into an emotionally charged dispute over the environmental and health aspects of the new transgenic products: genetically modified organisms and food containing genetically-modified ingredients. National newspapers have run front-page reports about the dangers of socalled `Frankenstein Foods', and widespread consumer concern has caused a large number of food producers and retailers to drop GM ingredients from their menu. Not only environmental pressure groups, but also prestigious institutions such as the British Medical Association have called for a moratorium on commercial releases into the environment.

While the British government is adamant in reassuring the public of the safety of GM products, large parts of society appear to have lost confidence in the scientific community and regulatory authorities. Scepticism reflects a wider crisis of confidence in the industrial production of food, and the role of biotechnology in particular. This can be traced back to previous food scares revolving around Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - mad cow disease or salmonella-infected eggs. But the situation in Britain is not unique; growing unease about the potential dangers of biotechnology can also be found in the rest of Europe.

This is in sharp contrast to the situation in the United States, the leading centre of biotechnological research and production. Unlike Europe, the biotechnology industry there has experienced little public resistance to the introduction of new transgenic products. US consumers can choose from a variety of foods containing genetically modified potatoes, tomatoes, soya beans, maize and canola. And opinion polls suggest that the majority welcomes the benefits, while a large number are simply unaware of the widespread use of genetic engineering in food.

There are many reasons for this trans-Atlantic gulf in societal perceptions of biotechnology, and they do not simply reflect differing levels of environmental concern. For one, food and certain aspects of food production play a bigger role in European society than in the United States.

Furthermore, a number of food-related scandals such as mad cow disease have undermined consumers' confidence in regulatory bodies in Europe. And environmentalists' campaigns and labelling requirements have made European consumers better informed about the presence of genetically modified food ingredients.

OCEANS APART

These transatlantic cultural and political differences are mirrored in the approaches to biotechnology regulation. The European Union issued two directives in 1990 which concern the contained use of GMOs and their release into the environment. They require environmental evaluation and step-by-step approval for the dissemination of GMOs. Food with GM ingredients has to be labelled as such. The regulations give extensive rights to member states to participate in the evaluation process but leave the final decision on, for example, the market introduction of such products, with the European Commission. …

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