Timing, different governmental structure and inequality in relative political strength of industry and non-governmental "public interest" movements help explain the sharply differing approaches to and public acceptance of food biotechnology, according to a paper presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington. The authors are Diahanna Lynch, a political scientist, and David Vogel of the business school at the University of California.

European regulatory policies are considerably more restrictive than those of the US, they said, because of several critical factors including greater resistance on the part of the European public to new agricultural technologies, the initial priority placed on opposition to biotech food by European non-government organisations, a relative lack of public confidence in government food safety authorities and scientific experts in Europe compared with the relative political strength and economic importance of biotechnology firms in the US. The differences can also be understood partly because the agriculture and food regulatory agencies were given the lead role in developing policy in the US while the EU's environmental directorate (DG XI) assumed primary responsibility in Brussels.

Support for biotech foods in Europe also lacked the political and economic underpinning it had in the US because the major companies behind the technology were based in the US and Switzerland, said Lynch and Vogel. The authors cited estimates that 485 biotech companies with 39,000 employees and US$3.1bn revenue (1996-97) operated in the EU, compared with some 1,300 such companies in the US with 153,000 employees and revenue of US$18.6bn. Moreover, a "political window" was conducive to opposition to new food technology following the UK BSE scandal, they said, for which there has been no US parallel. Some 60% of retail store food in the US comes from biotechnology products by end 1999 and "little evidence of a broad consumer backlash."

The paper, "Apples and Oranges: Comparing the Regulation of Genetically Modified Food in Europe and the United States," is available at http://pro.harvard.edu/abstracts/039/039003LynchDiaha.htm