Labelling informs the consumer on whether a product contains GM content. Europe has adopted labelling, but the US objects

Published: Tuesday 30 September 2003


-- Research, field trials and tests for effects on human health and environment are the back end of the regulation of GM foods. The finished product containing ingredients of GM crops can be regulated through labelling the products. This is a highly controversial issue. Even if GM foods are entirely safe, should the consumer have a choice to consume (or not consume) a food with GM ingredients? Even in countries where GM food has been on the shelf for more than five years (the US and Canada), opinion polls have shown that a sizeable proportion of the population wants to know if the food they eat has GM ingredients or not.

Several countries are either actively considering labelling of GM foods or have already passed the laws that require labelling of GM food. In India, there has been talk of a labelling system recently. Sri Lanka, which imposed a ban on GM foods two years ago, has indicated that it is considering a labelling system that would replace the ban. China announced a labelling system in 2001, but it is yet to work out; the US has criticised China's labelling regulations, saying the Chinese have not presented any science to support the regulations. The US is clearly worried about the export of soybean, which in 2001 was worth upwards of US $1 billion, as well as corn and cotton. China's concern is its own exports to countries that may require labelling. On April 28, 2003, the Brazilian government announced that all food and food ingredients made from more than one per cent GM ingredients must be labelled. The biggest labelling tussle is between the US and the European Union (EU).

The US has been supportive of biotechnology from the word go and its approach is heavily influenced by large biotech corporations. It assumes that the regulation of biotechnology should examine the safety of only the final product, not the GM crops. It does not require labelling of products containing GM products. In 1992, it issued regulations that approve of GM food if it has the same characteristics as its non-GM counterparts. By 2002, the area under GM crops in the US was more than 38 million hectares, 66 per cent of the total area under GM crops in the world.

The EU's approach has been more cautious in recent years. Europe saw several scandals over food safety in the 1990s -- mad cow disease, bacterially contaminated meat and dioxin in poultry, pork and beef. These led European consumers to doubt their governments, scientists and the regulatory process, which had suppressed facts and mishandled public health crises. Thereafter, EU has been bringing out several regulations to label foods in which more than one per cent GM ingredient can be traced. It first implemented a mandatory labelling policy on GM foods in 1997 under the Novel Foods Regulation, which required that any GM food on the market be shown to not harm human health, and required labelling if the GM content was 'detectable'. And since 1998, the Union has not approved any GM crops for cultivation.

This de facto moratorium caused significant decline in the import of US corn to the EU and in May 2003, the US sought the World Trade Organization's (WTO) intervention over the matter. As a counter, in July 2003, the EU came out with a new legislation on labelling and tracing of GM foods. The EU hopes that labelling will restore consumer confidence in the food regulatory system by providing consumers the choice to not eat GM food. Traceability is to help the withdrawal of a product if an unforeseen risk comes up. Traceability would also help monitor the potential health or environmental effects of GM foods and crops, and to control and verify labelling claims (see box: EU labelling policy). The new regulations will enter into force in October 2003. All member states of the EU would be required to begin complying with these rules by April 2004, and the European Commission will review the rules two years later. The regulation brought to an end a five-year moratorium on import of GM foods.

What's new
The US had contended in the WTO that there is no scientific basis for the moratorium and the labelling, and that GM crops and foods are as safe as conventional foods. So, the EU actions are violations of WTO agreements. Europe's hostility to the US complaint brings memories of the WTO case by the US against the EU's refusal to buy beef raised with bovine growth hormone. Rather than allowing hormone-treated beef as recommended by the WTO dispute settlement body, the EU chose to face increased tariffs on other EU goods exported to the US.

US farmers and biotech companies are concerned about the potential impact of the new rules on exports of GM crops such as soybean, which were not directly affected when the moratorium was in place. Now, labels would have to be put on these and it is likely that the GM-vary consumers of Europe will avoid foods and feeds with GM ingredients. But avoiding the GM label would also cost dearly. GM grain is routinely mixed with conventional varieties of corn and soybean. To escape the EU threshold for labelling (0.9 per cent), farmers and food producers in the US would have to segregate GM crops and foods derived from them -- that too at every step of crop harvesting and food processing. This will bring down the competitiveness of the existing commodity grain production mechanisms.

It is very unlikely that the amount of GM content would be brought down to no more than 0.9 per cent, because some amount of mixing is bound to happen even with segregation, say, due to pollen drift. Segregation difficulties will also result in a lot of other exports -- processed foods made from cooking oils -- getting the GM label. Soybean is the single largest GM crop in the world, and it is grown primarily for animal feed and food processing. A major chunk of the market for US farmers lies in its exports. US estimates point out that such a scenario could cost them up to US $4 billion in annual agricultural exports to the EU.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN food standards agency, brought more bad news for the US on July 7, 2003 -- on that day, the commission adopted new standards for GM crops. While nations are not bound to follow Codex standards, these are widely used as the legal basis for resolving international trade disputes. The new standards provide detailed procedures to determine if GM foods are safe. It also endorses the concept of 'traceability', which is central to EU actions. "These documents provide a legal basis under WTO rules for the EU's strong safety regulations for GMOs," said Michael Hansen, representative at the Codex meeting of Consumers International, a consortium representing more than 250 consumer rights organisations in 110 countries.

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