Consumer choice and 'Frankenstein foods'

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Europeans scornfully dub them "Frankenstein food." So it's not surprising some European environmentalists and leaders have reacted strongly to a recent trade ruling that favors these supposed monsters, or genetically modified foods. But their response, even for such a charged issue, is an overreaction.

These critics charge that the World Trade Organization - by declaring a de facto European Union ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be a violation of global trade laws, - is forcing unwanted products from the US and other agricultural exporters onto European consumers.

The body that settles world trade disputes is doing nothing of the sort. Europeans have strict labeling requirements that must identify such foods, and neither shoppers nor farmers have to buy food or seeds they don't want.

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What the ruling did do is separate the politics and emotion of this issue from the science and business of it - a useful service.

Even though the EU ended its GMO moratorium in 2004, five European countries still ban GMOs and appear to be in violation of the ruling. By clarifying a question of trade, and not food safety, the WTO has reinforced the rules of commerce concerning GMOs, which, importantly, also include European safety review. Only by allowing this trade mechanism to work freely can GMO producers and consumers get the consideration they both deserve.

So far, science and trade favor the current generation of GMOs, which include plant products such as maize, cotton, and soybeans. In the US, about 45 percent of maize, 76 percent of cotton, and 85 percent of soybeans are genetically altered.

Such products are grown in 21 countries, with Brazil almost doubling its production last year. Now China is stepping up government research into developing a strain of rice that's rich in vitamin A.

The US agriculture industry, a major player in biotechnology, points to the benefits of genetically altered foods. By using engineered plants that resist insects and disease, and that can tolerate pesticides or herbicides used to kill weeds, farmers can increase yields and income.

Meanwhile, scientific bodies around the world have generally concluded that this first generation of products - planted widely starting 10 years ago - is safe.

Yet the issue remains highly political and emotional in Europe.

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans see food biotechnology as a safety concern, but 54 percent of people in the 25-nation EU do. A series of high-profile food scares has spooked Europeans, and they don't particularly trust their relatively new Europe-wide food safety authority.

But they're also concerned about possible environmental problems of GMOs and long-term health effects, which are difficult to research.

The way to deal with these environmental and safety fears is through better communication on the part of GMO producers and a well-functioning safety-review system.

So far, that system appears to be working. But a second generation of GMO products is in the pipeline, and it will have to undergo, and pass, vigorous testing before being introduced to the marketplace.

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