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Consumers in Europe resist gene-altered foods

(Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- By LIZETTE ALVAREZ, NY Times: TOTNES, England, Feb. 7 At the Happy Apple greengrocer in this Elizabethan town in England's West Country, the roasted vegetable pasty is labeled, clearly and proudly, as GM-free. So is the hommity pie and a scattering of other products crammed onto shelves.

In fact, all across Britain and most of the rest of Europe, shoppers would be hard pressed to find any genetically modified, or GM, products on grocery store shelves, and that is precisely how most people want it.

Tinkering with the genetic makeup of crops to make them faster-growing and more resilient, something done routinely in the United States with seldom a pang of consumer concern, is seen here as heretical, or at the very least unhealthy.

In some countries, including France and Austria, there is an unofficial moratorium on the sale of genetically modified foods. Such foods simply cannot be found there.

"It's not the natural order of things, that's all," Heather Baddeley, who was picking up lettuce and avocados at the Happy Apple, said about GM foods. "It's a kind of corruption, not the right thing to do, you know?"

Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, does not agree. He recently called Europe's stance on genetically modified food "Luddite" and "immoral," saying that Europeans' fears about GM foods had persuaded some famine-ridden countries in Africa to reject genetically altered grains. Some Europeans believed that Mr. Zoellick was in effect blaming Europe for starvation in Africa.

David Byrne, the European Union's health and consumer protection commissioner, said: "The U.S. government, including Republican leaders in Congress, accuse Europe of using the issue of genetically modified food as a way of keeping out American exports." "What Bob Zoellick said over the last few weeks has been unhelpful, clearly. It was unfair. It was wrong."

The European Union finances nongovernmental organizations, but it is those groups themselves, not the European trading bloc, that have moved in some cases to steer Africans clear of genetically altered grains, Mr. Byrne insisted.

"The E.U.'s position on genetically modified food," he added, "is that it is as safe as conventional food."

That may be the official line at European Union headquarters in Brussels. But public sentiment in much of Europe, successfully stoked by environmental groups, is now so fiercely opposed to genetically altered food that in Austria, for example, politicians have won elections by vowing to keep "Frankenfood" at bay.

Many supermarket chains across France, Britain, Italy and Austria, among others, yanked all genetically modified products from their shelves three years ago and are in no hurry to restock them. Most recently, hundreds of Europe's most respected chefs banded together to form a group called Euro-Toques to battle the biotechnology lobby.

American companies like Monsanto stand to make enormous profits if Europe allows the importing of more genetically modified foods.

A decision by the European Parliament on stricter labeling of genetically modified foods could be made as early as summer, and European officials hope that may make the food more acceptable, by clarifying exactly how it is made. But there is concern in the United States that the labeling will only alarm European consumers more.

The proposed rules would trace genetically altered substances in corn, tomatoes, feed and oils and make it clear to consumers which products contained at least 0.9 percent of a genetically modified substance. The products concerned include highly refined corn oil, soybean oil and glucose syrup produced from cornstarch.

In France and Italy, Europe's two food meccas, public revulsion at GM food runs especially deep.

"U.S. culture is different from European culture," said Lorenzo Consoli, a Greenpeace expert on genetic engineering. "Here, there is a very strong feeling that links culture and food. And here there is much more the idea that science is not church or a religion. It is not enough anymore for European consumers to have somebody with a white coat, a professional, say it's O.K."

A string of food scandals, including the outbreak of mad cow disease in 1996, severely undermined people's faith in the safety of their food and their confidence in scientists and public officials, many of whom asserted that consumers faced no health risk at the time.

Other scandals

H.I.V.-tainted blood in France, the spread of mad cow disease from Britain to other European nations, and dioxin-infested chickens in Belgium only added to the mistrust.

Although there is no compelling evidence so far that genetically altered food is harmful, anti-GM activists say it is unknown whether the food is harmful in the long term. The uncertainty is precisely what worries Europeans.

Europeans also tend to be more environmentally sensitive than Americans, and environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth carry much greater sway.

One widespread fear is that genetically altered crops will pollinate and infest neighboring crops, affecting ecosystems in unpredictable, and perhaps irreversible, ways. Environmental groups have turned that concern into a successful campaign against genetically modified food.

Europeans also care more than Americans about how food tastes, as opposed to how long it can sit on a shelf. "For some member states it's nearly synonymous with sovereignty," said Mr. Byrne, referring to the quality of food. The fight against genetically modified food is being led by organization like Greenpeace, which is rooting for a legal confrontation over the issue in the World Trade Organization.

Pia Ahrenkild Hansen, the spokeswoman for the European Union environmental commissioner, said the industry had done a poor job of marketing the advantages of genetically modified foods in Europe.

"The industry has been incredibly bad about demonstrating what's the benefit," Ms. Hansen said. "Why it would make food production more sustainable. Why it would require less resources. Those arguments are not known by the consumers. People say, `Why should we buy it?' "

In this speck of a town in the county of Devon, it is almost impossible to find any supporters of genetically modified foods. Three weeks ago, the county council's executive board endorsed a decision to bar its schools and hospitals from using any genetically altered food.

Angry citizens held marches, set up booths and attended meetings on the issue. Residents were especially incensed when Britain began a set of trials of genetically modified foods on farms, one of which is near here.

One district councilor, Anne Ward, is petitioning the South Ham district here to declare itself a "GM-free zone." Ms. Baddeley, and many other shoppers at the Happy Apple, would favor that without a second thought, they said.