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The recent proposals by the European Commission regarding national jurisdiction over the cultivation of genetically-modified food have been criticised by both advocates and opponents of GM which, Ben Cooper writes, only serves to underline the intractability of the issue.

It is somewhat typical of the GM debate that the recent announcement by the European Commission regarding national jurisdiction over the issue appears to have pleased absolutely no one.

Last week, the European Commission announced proposals to give EU member states the right to ban or allow GM cultivation on their own territories.

The European biotech industry association, Europabio, said it was “disappointed” by the ruling. Its director for agricultural biotechnology, Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, said the proposals gave “carte blanche to ban safe and approved GM crops in any country or region regardless of the needs or wishes of their farmers”. He added that in a future “fraught with the challenges of globalisation, climate change, food insecurity and shortage of natural resources”, EU farmers would be denied the ability to use “cutting-edge technologies” available to their counterparts elsewhere.

On the other side of the debate, campaigners at Friends of the Earth were just as dissatisfied.

“While the European Commission is seemingly offering countries the right to implement national bans, in reality the proposal aims to do the opposite – opening Europe’s fields to GM crops,” said Friends of the Earth Europe’s food campaigner Mute Schimpf said.

The fact that the decision can elicit two such contrasting interpretations should perhaps not be surprising. GM is an issue where even the merest hint of consensus has been hard to find.

It has been observed by GM advocates that billions of meals with GM content have already been consumed with no ill-effects. While that is enough to convince some, many people remain deeply sceptical.

But why in an age where science appears continually to provide solutions that can sustain us, where we now instinctively turn to science for those answers, do we have such an impasse with GM?

At the heart of the intractability of this issue is public confidence. In spite of the safeguards we put in place, new technologies all carry some element of risk or the possibility that while no overt risk has been identified an unforeseen negative impact may emerge in the future. Science simply cannot give a blanket guarantee.

Scientists and politicians have to weigh those risks against the benefits and the risks represented by the alternatives to the technological solution. So GM advocates argue about the risks of continued pesticide use, about how GM technology can develop crops that need less irrigation, and naturally about the overall food security issue.

But in spite of relentless argument and huge amounts of money spent on PR and lobbying, some technologies are embraced more enthusiastically by the public than others.

There is an interesting analogy with mobile phones. Science cannot tell us that using a mobile phone is 100% safe. What it can tell us is that the evidence so far of any harm is sufficiently slender to sanction the technology, with certain safeguards.

It is not hard to see why there has been greater public acceptance of mobile phones than GM. The difference in perceived immediate benefit is immeasurable. By the same token, those campaigning for a more cautious approach to mobile phone technology find they have much less traction with the public – and consequently with the media – than those taking a similar line on GM.

Advocates of GM allege that this is because the public is basically irrational about the issue. The rumpus caused last month by the way the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had gone about planning a public consultation on GM spoke to this very point. The FSA was not only accused of favouring the GM industry but also of taking an overall premise that the public was ‘anti-science’.

Whether or not the FSA’s approach was correct, the organisation clearly had concerns over the emotive responses GM evokes and how easily these can be whipped up in the media with the ‘Frankenstein Food’ type of headlines.

While there is a huge amount of research going on into GM, arguably some more could usefully be conducted into exactly how and why consumers respond to GM in the way they do.

In the face of public scepticism, and with the constant risk of extremely negative media coverage, the food industry seems to keep a fairly low profile on the issue.

Retailers, always keen to show themselves to be acutely in tune with their shoppers, in some cases look to make PR capital by taking relatively strong positions against GM, which are arguably out of step with the actual level of risk associated with the technology.

For instance, Tesco says: “Our policy on genetically modified (GM) foods is based on what you, our customers, have told us you want. And our research shows that UK customers don’t want GM foods in our stores. So naturally we don’t have any own-brand GM foods on our shelves and all of our organic animals are reared using non-GM feed.”

The supermarkets’ policies are by their own admission not dictated by science but reflect public sentiment. In a statement, Sainsbury’s specifically says “whilst the latest scientific research and current Government advice is that GM ingredients do not present any risks to human health, we acknowledge the concerns of our customers and do not permit the use of GM crops, ingredients, additives or derivatives in any Sainsbury’s own label food, drink, pet food, dietary supplements or floral products”.

In relation to the potential benefit the food industry could reap from GM, its reticence to take a stronger position is at first surprising but yet one when considers the reputational problems completely understandable. The heavy lifting in advocacy terms is left to the GM companies and industry groups themselves. And biotechnology companies do not win corporate popularity contests.

In one sense it is reassuring that the uncertain public sentiment around GM, which could be characterised variously as fear, doubt, uncertainty, agnosticism and frustration, appears to be reflected in the Commission’s recent decision. In essence, we are not sure about GM, so we end up with unsatisfactory legislation.

However, in situations where the public appears simply not to know what to do, there is arguably an onus on governments to lead. By the same token, where prevailing public opinion is seen as misinformed or ill-judged, governments have a responsibility to veer away from populism.

The question is whether the proposals give the EU as a whole, and the individual governments within it, greater scope for taking a lead on GM. While states can opt to ban GM, they cannot do so on health and or scientific grounds as these issues are decided at an overall EU level. They can only opt out on moral or ethical grounds, for example, in the words of John Dalli, when “a country is facing a massive aversion to a certain cultivation issue”.

In other words, member governments will be able to take an anti-GM position if consumer sentiment against GM runs high. So in terms of addressing the potentially distorting effect of what could be disproportionate consumer anxiety over this issue, we appear to be right back where we started.