Dining with DNA

The European Union is revising its legislation concerning genetically modified (GM) organisms. Somewhere during the process of consultation and agreement, however, the original aim of protecting the environment and consumers has been sidelined, resulting in a complicated law with many loopholes. The new directive, 2001/18, covering the overall management of GM organisms went into force on October 17. While probably the most advanced legislation in the world, basic problems undermine the legislative framework. Small concessions pave the way for the uncontrolled spread of GM organisms. Consumers, everyone agrees, have the right to choose. The legislation determines when packaging has to be labeled as containing GM organisms – no simple matter. The European Commission’s proposal is to require labeling only when GM organisms account for over 1 percent of the product. Thus it is not necessary for produce (milk, cheese, etc) deriving from animals that have been fed with GM feed to be labeled as containing GM organisms, even though research has shown that genetically modified DNA can cross over to human beings. The consumer has the right to know – but not everything, it seems. The problem begins, in fact, at the start of the production chain, the seeds. The legislative chapter on seeds allows for a large degree of contamination of conventional seeds by GM ones. In practice this means that farmers, in all innocence, may end up cultivating GM crops, even strains that have not received approval (and thus are not subject to any controls). Naturally, the final product will end up on our plate without consumers being any the wiser as to what exactly they are eating. Given the contamination of the beginning of the chain, how can the final product be monitored? Directive 2001/18 states that for approval to be given for the cultivation of GM crops, a full scientific survey of the environmental and human risk must be carried out. Apart from the fact that many scientists acknowledge that this is in fact impossible, accepting contamination of conventional seeds obviously torpedoes such an attempt. The main point of the new legislation is that its complex limits and restrictions render it essentially impossible to implement. After all, GM labeling on food products has been around for some years now. But how many food products have sported labels saying they contain GM organisms? Who will guarantee that a system will be set up which will calculate percentages at every step of the production process? Firms, when so requested, managed to supply producers with wholly GM-free seeds. Why should impure mixes be accepted by the legislation? Pronouncements on protection for consumers and the environment in fact conceal vested interests. The EU halted the approval of new strains of GM organisms in 1999, imposing a moratorium precisely because the existing legislation did not safeguard consumers and the environment. America, the nursery of such products, lost a large part of its exports. Recently, it announced that it would take the issue to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a case of illegal competition. Under this pressure, the EU proceeded to revise its legislation, promising that it would soon lift the moratorium. But if a cultivator of GM produce finds that the results are not as rosy as the companies promise, or if there are negative effects for consumers, who will pay the price? The firms, the producers, or the consumers? The EU has not legislated on this knotty problem. If it had, this would initially result in a secure environment; no one would bring a risky product out onto the market knowing that they would have to pay the consequences.