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Europe Lifts GM Food Ban Despite Public Opposition

The European Commission defied public opinion and environmentalists on Wednesday by giving the go-ahead to a Swiss company to import the genetically modified sweet corn BT-11, effectively lifting a five-year ban.


Where's the market for GM corn?

Since 1999 GM products have had a hard time making it to Europe's markets. A ban on importing bio-engineered food made it nearly impossible for crops like the BT-11 sweet corn to land on supermarket shelves. But now that is all set to change, and many companies are ready to start stocking GM food products, much to the disdain of the majority of Europe's consumers.

On Wednesday the EU executive endorsed an application by Swiss firm Syngenta to import genetically modified maize into the 25-nation bloc, thus lifting the five-year moratorium. "The BT-11 application was approved by the Commission," said Beate Gminder, a spokeswoman for EU Health Commissioner David Byrne.

Syngenta was given approval to import the GM tinned sweet corn into the EU for 10 years, provided the cans are clearly labeled as containing GM products. A number of other companies are now hoping to follow close on the Swiss firm's heels, and the EU is currently examining 33 further applications for the breeding or cultivation and sale of GM crops in Europe.

The EU Commission, which has been at the forefront of calls for introducing GM crops to Europe in recent years, was given the ultimate decision on whether to lift the ban after EU member states failed to break a deadlock on the issue last month. Despite public criticism and pressure from environmental lobbyists, only four of the now 30-member Commission expressed any reservations about ending the ban.

Where's the appetite?

Wednesday's decision will certainly please the United States, the world's biggest producer of GM foods and the leader of a group of 12 countries petitioning the World Trade Organization to overturn the European ban and open up the EU for GM products.

What remains less certain, however, is who will actually buy the bio-engineered food. A recent survey conducted by the EU shows that more than 70 percent of Europeans are against so-called "Frankenfoods." The advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FOE) says there is virtually no market for GM foods in Europe as consumers have overwhelmingly rejected them.

"Where is the market for BT-11, who's going to buy it," asked Adrien Bebb, a GM campaigner for the European branch of FOE. "There certainly aren't going to be any rushes at the supermarket," he told DW-WORLD.

A hard pill to swallow?

Frau mit Mais im Labor Genmais

Testing GM corn in the laboratory is not enough, say environmental groups.

Environmentalists and consumer protection groups argue that the safety of GM products has yet to be conclusively proven. The BT-11 sweet corn, for instance, is an insect and herbicide-resistant strain currently sold in the United States, but scientists still cannot agree on its safety, said Bebb. Some critics say the corn has been modified to produce a toxin and that the scientific tests of the strain were carried out under outdated regulations. Bebb told DW-WORLD that before the corn can be sold in Europe, "proper long-term testing is needed, and not just experiments in the lab."

It is the responsibility of the Commission to look after the safety of the public, he said, "not the financial interests of the biotechnology industry or its friends in the White House."

"What is the Commission there for if it doesn't act in the interests of the public," he added.

Non-conclusive evidence

The European Association for Bioindustries (Europabio) said such arguments were an insult to the EU's Food Safety Authority, which has declared BT-11 safe for human consumption. "It is a slap in the face for the EFSA, which has spent a tremendous amount of energy in conducting the safety evaluation," Europabio secretary-general Johan Vanhemelrijck told AFP news agency.

"If there is no demand, the product will not be successful. But if you do not give consumers a choice, and you claim there is no demand, then you are claiming something that cannot be proven," he said.

Force-feeding the public?

The Commission argues that new rules placed on labeling and tracing GM foods should ensure that tough safeguards are carried out and help ease public concern. The regulations, which took effect on April 18, require food and animal feed to be labeled if they contain 0.9 percent or more of GM ingredients. Producers and buyers must also keep track of data concerning the origin, composition and sale of GM products for a five-year period.

But the regulations are "not the total solution" said Bebb, who admitted that listing the contents of a food product will help inform the public, but it doesn't change the fact that people not want GM food.

"If the Commission decides to force this down our throats then they can only expect the public's confidence in GM foods to sink even further," he said ahead of the decision on Wednesday..

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