by Gill Lacroix
European citizen opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) began in earnest after Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soy was authorized in the European Union (EU) in 1996. Until then, most people in Europe hadn't a clue what a GMO was, and didn't realize how big a part soy plays in the food supply (an estimated 60 percent of all processed food contains soy derivatives). The arrival on the market of Monsanto's soy and the fear that more genetically engineered (GE) products were on the way alarmed European consumers. Strong citizen resistance led to a de facto EU moratorium on GMOs – none have been authorized for release into the environment since spring 1998.
The EU comprises 15 member states, from Finland to Greece, that share legislation but are very different in language, climate and culture. What Europeans have in common, however, is a close relationship with their traditions, their food and their countryside, along with a general skepticism about politicians and "men in white coats" with industry ties.
In recent years, Europe has suffered some serious food crises: mad cow disease and other problems such as dioxin in food products, contaminated cola, sewage sludge in animal feed and most recently, a foot-and-mouth epidemic. Public opinion has blamed these crises on intensive farming practices and mismanagement by politicians and some scientists. Citizens' faith in food safety and production processes has been deeply shaken, and demand for organic production has soared. With this background, it's hardly surprising that a majority of Europeans are skeptical about GE foods.
For the past several years, nongovernmental organizations in Europe have been working to raise public awareness about GE food. Consumer groups and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth provide information to consumers, focus public demands for comprehensive labeling of GMOs, campaign for traceability laws to track GMOs from field to plate, lobby for liability of GMO producers and work at a political level to generally improve legislation. Pressure from nongovernmental organizations has fueled the de facto moratorium on GMO approvals, and achieved a positive amendment to the EU directive governing approvals. This amendment extends risk assessment to include cumulative long-term effects on human health, the environment, biological diversity and nonagricultural ecosystems; foresees traceability and labeling of genetically modified organisms at all stages, and makes direct reference to the "precautionary principle" when considering GMO authorizations. (It does not, however, fix liability to life-science companies for genetic pollution.)
The StarLink scandal in the United States, in which genetically modified corn authorized only for animal consumption was found in human foods, has helped highlight the serious impact that GMOs can have on food imported from America. Discovery of StarLink in shipments from the U.S. led some countries, like Japan, to seek supplies elsewhere, and countries that say they can guarantee GMO-free harvests have been quick to take advantage of the demand. European resistance to GMOs, and the fact that many GE crops approved in the U.S. are not authorized in the EU and are therefore illegal if imported, is making U.S. farmers think twice about what to grow in order to guarantee themselves an export market.
The struggle against GMOs has been compared to that of David and Goliath, with environmental and consumer groups on one side, and powerful multinational corporations and some pro-GMO governments on the other. But if U.S. and European citizens act together to demand an environment and a food supply free of GMOs, David can win this battle, too.