There’s a new French paradox when it comes to dining today, but it is not related to wine consumption. Though a product of biotechnology, wine pales by comparison to the products of modern biotechnology in terms of paradoxical views on behalf of French and other European consumers. Wine is also unequivocally accepted. Pierre Deloffre, general manager of Bonduelle, a French fruit and vegetable product manufacturer, discussed what he called “a confused and irrational story” about biotech foods in Europe at the American Seed Trade Association’s (ASTA’s) Corn & Sorghum Seed Research Conference in Chicago on Dec. 8.

Deloffre’s story began in 1986 with the Chernobyl accident, which first made Europeans recognize that modern technology — generally considered until then to be fully under control — could, in fact, be dangerous (nuclear energy provides 80 percent of the electricity used in France). Scientists and politicians, in their effort to allay the public’s fears, underestimated the consequences of the accident, making Europeans realize that their countries’ borders are of little significance in terms of technological risks and the environment can suffer severe long-term damage.

The Chernobyl accident was compounded in the early 1990s, when the European public discovered that blood used in several transfusions had been contaminated by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Though members of the medical and scientific communities, as well as certain politicians, were fully aware of the situation, no action was taken, Deloffre said.

“This scandal (had) a profound impact on public opinion,” he noted. “The public perception was that the scientific community, including the medical profession, were gambling with our lives; politicians were no better; and the supervisory bodies in place were ineffective.”

This perception was compounded by the “mad cow disease” outbreak in Britain in 1996, the announcement of the first cloned mammal in February 1997, and in 1999, by the Belgium dioxin crisis and recall of Coca-Cola products thought to contain a fungicide, Deloffre said. It was a time “characterized by widespread media coverage, confusion, and the revelation of scandal after scandal in the food industry.” Given this climate, it was no surprise that the first biotech food, a tomato paste, introduced in Europe in 1996 was removed from grocery store shelves in 1999.

“In the environment that prevails today, biotechnology can be used — and is used — to develop ideas that extend far beyond the bounds of logic,” Deloffre continued. “Consumers place GMOs (genetically modified organisms) second only to mad cow disease when questioned on the risks associated with food products. (For example,) in response to the statement ‘ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes but genetically modified ones do,’ 35 percent of European respondents said ‘true’ and 30 percent said ‘don’t know.”’

Herein lies the first European paradox related to biotech foods. Another paradox, according to Deloffre, is viewing biotech crops as potential threats to the environment while they reduce reliance on agricultural inputs, such as pesticides and herbicides. Believing that farmers have lost their freedom of choice in seed, when in fact, their options have expanded is also a misperception. Similarly, intellectual property rights are often viewed as merely as a tool to reward big business when they exist to protect new plant varieties and make inventions publicly accessible. Other paradoxes, Deloffre noted, are allowing man to “play God with nature” with pharmaceuticals, but not with food, and perceiving GMOs as a greater threat to the community than to the consumer.

“There is no scientific evidence that GMOs constitute a health risk,” Deloffre noted. “But in the prevailing climate of mistrust regarding food, consumers (ignore this fact). The public’s fears are now so deeply anchored that a reversal of the trend will require much time and effort. (But) Europe cannot reject the trend towards genetically modified food forever.”

In order to reverse the trend, Deloffre believes that the European Commission needs to re-establish its credibility as a decision-making organization; the Food Safety Control Authority, to be set up in 2002, will have to ensure its independence and gain the trust of European consumers; and consumers will have to be able to perceive that there are real benefits to be gained from the next generation of GMOs (and) given guarantees that all possible risks will be reduced to a minimum or kept fully under control.

According to Deloffre, the countries least accepting of modern biotechnology are Greece and Austria, followed by France and England. Germany occupies a median position and Spain, although it is not clearly in favor of GMOs, has had a greater level of acceptance than the rest of Europe.

Founded in 1883, the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), located in Washington, DC, is one of the oldest trade organizations in the United States. Its membership consists of about 900 companies involved in seed production and distribution, plant breeding, and related industries in North America. As an authority on plant germplasm, ASTA advocates science and policy issues of industry importance. Its mission is to enhance the development and free movement of quality seed worldwide.