The European Parliament adopted strict consumer protection legislation for genetically modified products yesterday, a move which should end the de facto moratorium on approval for GM food and could head off a damaging trade dispute with the United States.
The new rules require any GM food, and even items containing GM ingredients that are no longer detectable, to say so clearly on the label. Records will have to be kept throughout all stages of the food chain to ensure that GM products can be traced from the farm to the dining table. The measures, which will take effect this autumn, are designed to give consumers the fullest information possible so they can make an informed choice when deciding whether to buy GM food.
Margot Wallström, the Environment Commissioner, said: “We are providing a robust safeguard system and the foundation for a comprehensive labelling system. In this way, we address the most critical concerns of the public regarding the environmental and health effects of genetically modified organisms and enable consumers to choose.”
The legislation, which must now be formally approved by EU governments, was hailed as a victory by the Consumers’ Association. It said the “decision would be welcomed by the 94 per cent of consumers who think that food containing GM ingredients should be labelled as such”.
It also received support from MEPs, with Caroline Jackson, the British chairman of the environment committee, predicting that the measures would start a debate determining the extent of consumer concerns.
“It will be up to the companies that want to market GM food and feed to prove to us that they have benefits. Such companies have a lot of public opposition to overcome, so the ball is in their court,” she said.
The biotechnology industry is aware that it faces a challenge. No new GM products have been approved in the EU since 1998 and opponents have insisted that the moratorium should remain until strict labelling and traceability rules are put in place.
Simon Barber, a director at Europabio, the European association for biotechnology industries, said those demands had now been met and that firms should be able to offer their products to the public.
“The market is not going to lap them up straightaway. This is a slow confidence-building procedure. We will have to work hard to show consumers and farmers that there really are benefits from this technology,” he said.
Mrs Wallström confirmed that 20 applications to market GM foodstuffs are awaiting approval and predicted that the first decisions could be taken in the autumn.
She criticised the American decision to file a formal complaint against the EU’s moratorium before the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The transatlantic dispute over GM foods became more heated last month when President Bush claimed that the EU’s stance was contributing significantly to famine in Africa.
The US believes that it is losing $300 million (£180 million) a year in lost corn exports.
A senior US official said last night that Washington would carefully study the new legislation to determine whether it had any bearing on the complaint. But he expressed concerns about the labelling and traceability requirements, claiming that they would be “enormously complicated and would place a huge burden on the entire marketing process”.
“The US supports the provision of accurate information to consumers, but this should be presented in a non-prejudicial manner and be feasible and practical,” he said.
He also voiced concerns over the new “co-existence” provision. This will allow governments to introduce national measures, such as buffer zones, to prevent GM crops contaminating traditional varieties. “This is very ambiguous and broad,” he said.
The flexibility of these national measures makes it likely that countries that are reluctant to introduce GM crops will introduce stringent requirements that would discourage GM production, while supporters of the new technology, such as Britain, will take a more lenient approach.