Biotech's Merits Worthless Without Public Trust

WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2000 (ENS) - A report commissioned by U.S. President Bill Clinton and European Commission President Romano Prodi warns governments they must be more open over biotechnology issues or risk a public backlash.

"Lack of trust jumps across seemingly unrelated areas of regulation and policy," said the final report of the European Union-United States Biotechnology Consultative Forum.


European Commission President Romano Prodi. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
"So the transparency of decision making processes and meaningful participation - involving all stakeholders - are matters of rapidly increasing importance," added the 24-page report, released at this week's U.S.-European Union summit meeting in Washington.

Mandatory government inspection and labeling of foods made from genetically engineered crops are among the 23 recommendations made by the forum.

The forum is made up of 20 independent experts from both sides of the Atlantic and was set up at the EU-US Summit in May. The report describes these experts as scientists, lawyers, consumer representatives, specialists on ethics, farmers, environmentalists and business people.

They were chaired by Ruud Lubbers, Professor of Globalization at Tilburg University and former Prime Minister of The Netherlands, and Cutberto Garza, Chair of Cornell University.


Professor of Globalization at Tilburg University, Ruud Lubbers. (Photo courtesy Ruud Lubbers)
Meeting four times during the last four months, the group focussed on the use of biotechnology in the context of agriculture and in particular on biotechnology with respect to plants. The report is restricted to genetically modified crops or foods.

Genetically modified organisms have had their genetic material altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. By genetically engineering an organism, individual genes can be selected and transferred from organism into another, sometimes between non-related species.

Food companies might transfer useful genes into plants that lack them to make them more resistant to disease or pesticide. But some scientists and non-governmental offices such as Greenpeace are concerned about possible side effects of genetic engineering.

Their concerns that GM crops and GM food could create allergies, harm biodiversity and eliminate indigenous species have raised awareness among consumers who are increasingly demanding tougher labeling laws.


President Bill Clinton. (Photo courtesy White House press office)
Under European Union law, for instance, GM soya and maize proteins and flour must be labeled as GM but other soya and maize ingredients, known as derivatives need not. So even if a product does not state that it is GM, it may still contain GM ingredients.

GM ingredients are entering the food chain in other ways. GM crops are being fed to farm animals like chickens, pigs and cows, thereby entering milk, eggs, cheese and meat. There is no requirement for foods from animals fed on GM crops to be labeled as GM.

"Consumers should have the right of informed choice regarding the selection of what they want to consume," said the Consultative Forum's report.

"Therefore, at the very least, the EU and U.S. should establish content based mandatory labeling requirements for finished products containing novel genetic material."

"Regulatory authorities charged with developing labeling protocols should consider the reliability of detection systems in identifying modified/novel ingredients, and the need to define appropriate minimum levels which would trigger mandatory labeling requirements," it continued.

The report goes on to say that the regulation of biotech food and feeds should be based on three overriding concepts:

Other key recommendations include:

The Protocol signed in the Columbian city of Cartagena in 1999 and adopted in Montreal, Canada, this year attempts to ensure that living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology are handled and transferred safely across borders.


Greenpeace activists protested the unloading of GM soya from the U.S. at a port in southern France last week. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace International)
Fifty countries are required to ratify the Protocol in order to make it legally binding. So far only two have done so. Some 78 countries have signed the Protocol but have not yet ratified it. Major GM organism exporters Canada and the U.S. have yet to sign.

European Commission President Romano Prodi welcomed this week's report, saying it would be a useful contribution to the transatlantic debate on biotechnology.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of State said the report illustrated that there is common ground for discussing biotechnology, both between the U.S. and the EU and among many NGOs concerned with the subject.

"The Forum's advice on labeling coincides with our view that any labeling should be based on content rather than on process," said the spokesman.

"The Food and Drugs Administration already follows a procedure for labeling of food. This process would apply to any bioengineered food product that contained a substantive change when compared to conventional foods."

The FDA plans to publish a proposed regulation that will make it mandatory for developers wishing to market a bioengineered food product to notify and provide information about the product to the FDA at least 120 days before marketing.