For some time now the EU and the US have had their horns locked on the subject of genetically modified foods. With accusations and threats flying, the debate is far from over. Bernice Hurst examines both sides of the argument.

It isn't only Americans who want free growth and trade of genetically modified foods. Nor is it only Europeans who want controls and labels. The arguments have escalated (or degenerated, depending on your point of view) far beyond technology and food safety. They now concern human rights and freedom of choice as well as principles of fair trade, transparency and fear of the unknown.

Ever since US Trade Representative Robert B Zoellick declared that Europe's stance on genetically modified food was "Luddite" and "immoral," the situation has become increasingly acrimonious. After his original comments, Zoellick insisted that Europeans were preventing starving African nations from accepting American food aid. He followed this with a threat to "sue," or at least to lodge an official complaint against the entire European Union with the World Trade Organisation for unfair trade practices. It took several months from his opening barrage to back down and decide that the timing was not, perhaps, ideal. Even then, he did not withdraw his accusations; he simply withdrew the threat of suing.

Zoellick may have called a ceasefire, but none of the positions have changed. He is still of the opinion that GM food could help alleviate hunger as well as opening markets for American farmers, according to the New York Times. There is nothing bad about GM food and the Americans have no evil ambitions. Their scientists have said so, and there is no proof to the contrary.

A global debate
Not everyone finds these assertions acceptable. The Western Australia government announced legislation in February that would give the agriculture minister more control over deciding where GM crops could be planted.

And no fewer than six countries voted against EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne on 26 February when he suggested liberalising rules on European imports before the rules on labelling and traceability had been approved and put into effect.

While another genetically modified corn product from Monsanto was approved by the US Environmental Agency in late February, the company bowed to industry concerns about the lack of a market for GM wheat at the end of January by agreeing not to introduce it until "the industry is ready", according to a Reuters report.

It was Zambia whose decision to reject American food aid triggered some of Zoellick's comments. Concerns that American grain could possibly contaminate their own supplies, and therefore threaten a fragile export economy, were said to have been based on a paper published by the British Medical Association in 1998. The BMA recently announced that the time has come to review its stance but the timetable does not imply any sense of urgency.

Throughout Asia, the ground is being literally prepared for sowing, says the International Herald Tribune. Genetically modified cotton crops will be first, with little doubt that corn and other foodstuffs will follow shortly. China, India and Indonesia are already planting whereas Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are earmarking billions of dollars for research. Newsweek International, however, reported that concerns over public opinion and reluctant export markets have caused both India and China to temper these developments with caution.

Consumer choice
The ultimate arbiters in all this will, of course, be consumers. This makes the issue of labelling genetically modified foods another, perhaps hotter, potato. As long as consumers can exercise choice, scientists and governments around the world will have to exercise persuasion rather than force to accompany their edicts. When the US Agriculture Secretary, Ann M Veneman, declares that "our patience is just running out", she is ignoring similar sentiments from the world's population.

Public relations, on the part of biotechnology companies, has been notably unsuccessful so far. Big sticks have aroused ire. No one, yet, has convinced consumers that they should abdicate the right to decide for themselves. They may, eventually, be convinced that there is neither human nor environmental harm to fear but they will still want to know what they are buying. The importance of traceability, to many, is paramount.

In the meantime, many retailers have refused to sell what their customers refuse to buy. Which has left farmers without a market for products that their own suppliers and governments have encouraged them to grow. Environmental groups have been far more successful in the arena of public opinion.

Threats and tantrums notwithstanding, Elizabeth Becker in the New York Times succinctly summarises the situation. "The ultimate resolution of this case will rest on labelling, not opposing notions of science, and it promises to pit European ideas of proper regulation against American notions about free and unfettered trade."

To label or not to label
When it comes to labelling, most American organisations and government agencies are opposed on principle. It isn't just about the money, they contend, but for the good of the public. It might frighten them. Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson, went on record with his opposition in June 2002, saying "labels imply that biotechnology products are unsafe".

Agriculture department Undersecretary for Food Safety, Elsa Murano, told the New York Times that labelling "implies that there is something wrong with genetically modified food…it would be another kind of trade barrier." Having passed the tests set for it, there is no need to call attention to any differences by labelling. Taste and appearance are identical, therefore packaging should be too.

The fact that nineteen other countries demand labelling has only highlighted financial implications which are estimated at US$4bn per year according to officials.

Labels can, indeed, be construed as frightening or confusing (and can be deliberately formulated to be so) but so, too, can their absence. Lack of information can be perceived as having something to hide, misleading or even dishonest. Not labelling can be even more frightening if you begin to wonder just what is being hidden.

Cultural differences
Even apparently straightforward information such as country of origin is anathema to the Food Marketing Institute in the United States, which admits that money is at the root of its objections. President and CEO Tim Hammonds cites the costs of record keeping based on the number of products and suppliers used by each retailer as well as the cost of packaging, verification and staff training. A spokesperson for lobbyists, the American Farm Bureau, further claims that it would be so expensive, exports would be shut down.

So far, there are no compromises on the table and a trade war has only, apparently, been averted temporarily. As Margaret Beckett, British minister for food and the environment puts it, there are serious underlying cultural differences. These cannot, in the long term, be ignored.