Europe invites biotech debate

The EU's farm ministers will hold a special meeting next week to hear expert evidence on biotechnology.

Desperate to catch up with the United States on the cutting edge of biotech discovery, European governments face one major hurdle that has nothing to do with science or money: their voters.

Europeans are increasingly skeptical about genetic engineering, whether it be the genetic modification of crops such as corn, or the cloning of human cells. And their doubts have had an impact: the European Union has approved no new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for the past three years.

But attempts to boost consumer confidence with more and stricter regulations have run into difficulties on a different front. American exporters - who grow millions of acres of genetically modified corn, soy, and canola - say Europe's new rules discriminate against them. The Bush administration agrees, and is urging Brussels to drop a new labeling law for GM foods. Another trans-Atlantic trade war looms.

So, in a bid to overcome widespread disquiet, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, is launching a drive to thrash out all the scientific and ethical questions in a continent-wide consultation, using public-access websites, conferences, and public debate.

"It is of strategic and long-term importance that Europe master the new frontier technologies, in particular the life sciences and biotechnology, and use them for the benefit of society," EC president Romano Prodi said last week.

By the end of the year, the consultation involving politicians, consumers, scientists, philosophers, businesspeople, environmentalists, doctors, and farmers, is due to culminate in a policy paper setting out Europe's strategic vision for biotech.

"A driving force" behind the campaign is the fear that "without knowing what we are doing, we are putting the brakes on European industry taking advantage of new progress," says Pia Ahrenkilde, spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.

"Europe cannot afford to miss the opportunity that these new sciences and technologies offer," the EC said in a discussion paper designed to launch the debate. But it also acknowledged that "public perception ... represents a challenge for all public authorities."

The European public is not convinced that the opportunities the Commission sees are worth the risks that worry many citizens.

While business leaders and scientists promise solutions to world hunger from genetically modified food crops, or new cures for disease by splicing human genes, European consumers are more likely to perceive threats to the environment, or the danger of people making identical clones of themselves.

Eurobarometer, the EU's polling body, found in a 1999 study, for example, that only 19 percent of respondents would be happy to eat eggs laid by chickens fed GM corn, and that 37 percent felt that biotech methods are morally acceptable in food production. That was down from 50 percent in a similar survey three years earlier, reflecting a general drop in support for GM technology.

That attitude was dramatically illustrated last year in Britain, where a group of anti-GMO protesters was acquitted by a jury on all charges arising from their destruction of an experimental cornfield.

On a continent battered by mad cow disease, dioxin-contaminated chickens, and other scares, food safety is a much bigger issue than it is in the United States. Prompted by Greenpeace and other environmental groups, a fierce debate over genetically modified food has gathered pace in Europe in recent years.

That has complicated biotech companies' efforts to introduce new strains of seed and food made from the new crops, in contrast to the trouble-free shift that the US made from conventional to GM crops a few years ago.

The EU has now introduced the strictest set of regulations on biotech food in the world, establishing lengthy approval procedures and demanding that all GMOs, or food derived from them, be clearly labeled.

That worries US exporters, whose soy and corn crops, for example, are now largely genetically engineered and who do not normally store GM harvests separately from conventional ones, making the traceability that European legislation demands impossible.

US sales of soybeans to the EU fell by 30 percent between 1996 and 2000, according to US Department of Agriculture figures. (about 68 percent of the US soy harvest is genetically modified).

The clash has the potential to become another major trade dispute, in the wake of the tariff war now raging over the EU's refusal to import beef from cattle treated with hormones, which most Americans eat with little complaint.

Europeans are uninformed and often ignorant of the issues surrounding genetic engineering, however, according to the Eurobarometer survey. Only 11 percent said they felt adequately informed about biotechnology, while 35 percent agreed with the statement that "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do." Thirty percent said they did not know, suggesting that only 35 percent realized that all tomatoes contain genes.

The European Commission hopes to overcome such ignorance with its consultation campaign, on the assumption that the more people know about biotech the more they will accept it.

That proved to be the case in Britain, where public opinion shifted in favor of human stem-cell research over the course of a two-year public debate.

Meanwhile in the US, public opinion may be moving - although slowly - against genetically modified foods as the debate there heats up. An ABC poll last June found 52 percent of respondents saying GM foods were "not safe to eat," whereas a year earlier a Gallup poll found 51 percent seeing no dangers to health.

In the end, the EC has accepted the idea that consumers will make or break the new technology.

"The key to resolving the apparent dilemmas," it says in its discussion paper, inviting comments from ordinary people, "lies with Europe's citizens."

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