6 July 2002

Eurofile: Euro-MPs blight Britain's GM harvest

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Brussels

The struggle between the European Union and America over gene manipulation came to a head this week. The scientific and ethical clash leaves US-aligned Britain caught on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

After four years of furious debate, Euro-MPs voted for a stringent law restricting the sale of genetically-modified products. Using their formidable powers they added demands that come close to turning the EU into a GM-free zone.

The Green movement called the vote a "historic defeat" for the American agro-industrial machine and its army of lobbyists.

They say the world is playing with fire by creating "Frankenstein" foods, which could threaten mankind with a chain of irreversible consequences.

They have European public opinion on their side. More than 71 per cent say they refuse to eat any GM products at all, and 94 per cent want clear labelling. The EU has refused to grant any new permits for GM products since June 1999, amounting to a moratorium.

The new rules, which require the assent of EU ministers, impose an onerous "traceability" regime from farm to kitchen table. They demand GM labels on every biscuit, packet of crisps, or fizzy drink that contains a 0.5 per cent trace of genetically modified organisms, and include a series of "killer" details that effectively erect a trade barrier to imported GM products.

Tory and Labour MEPs attacked the proposed new rules as unworkable, accusing "Luddite" activists of trying to cripple Britain's booming biotechnology industry and to provoke a transatlantic trade war. They say Europe will become a scientific backwater while the rest of the world moves on, ceding leadership to the Americans in the second "Agricultural Revolution".

Washington fears the rules will shut out $4 billion of US exports and pressure EU farmers to switch to non-GM products. It says GM crops are totally safe, dismissing EU concerns as flat-Earth superstition.

The problem for Britain is that it is no longer able to make its own national judgment. The decisions are taken instead by an EU elite that has failed to foster a scientific flowering in Europe over the past 20 years, and may not be up to the task.