July 2, 2003
The European parliament today lifted the ban on genetically modified foods, instead choosing to impose a strict labeling regime that could stave off a trade war with the US. In the face of US opposition, MEPs voted to step up labeling standards, improving consumer information and clarity about GM content in all crops and ingredients.
Compulsory labeling will apply to thousands of products which contain GM soya and GM maize-derived foods, but do not currently have to be labeled because they contain no GM DNA. The rules will also require an identification code on all grain shipments, allowing grain to be traced back to its farm of origin. The US has complained that traceability requirements are unnecessary and expensive.
Conservative MEP Caroline Jackson said that the new rules would allow customers to choose whether or not they consumed GM foods. "We will have a clearer idea of the real extent of consumer concern about GM foods, and it will be up to the companies that want to market GM food and feed to prove to us that they have benefits," she said. "Such companies have a lot of public opposition to overcome, so the ball is in their court. However, the government can also make freely available all scientific information on GM crops so that people can make up their own minds."
To appease anti-GM campaigners who would rather see no GM products at all, the deal will allow national governments to severely restrict the growing of GM crops so they can protect conventional or organic farmers from cross-contamination. Today's vote requires formal endorsement from EU agricultural ministers later this month. The new rules could be in place before the end of this year.
According to an EU survey, 70% of Europe's public do not want GM food, and 94% want to be able to choose whether or not they eat it. The new rules will anger the US, who may launch a new trade row by complaining to the World Trade Organization, even though lifting the GM ban will reopen lucrative US export markets to the EU. Washington says that, in themselves, the new labeling rules amount to protectionism, especially as there is no proven risk to human health from GM products.
Current EU requirements are that food containing any ingredient with at least 1% of GM DNA should be labeled. Today's vote lowers the label requirement to 0.9%, and the items covered by the legislation include derivatives from GM crops, such as oils which do not contain DNA, and animal feed. Labour MEP David Bowe, author of the European Parliament's report on the GM framework regulations, said: "Our priority is to respond to the demands of people calling for the right to make a choice about GM food, not the dictates of US companies with threats of an American trade war. "We are trying to put in place a labelling and information scheme which makes that choice a reality."
The Soil Association, a campaign group on organic issues, said: "The best way to give consumers confidence that their food is GM-free is to ensure that no GM crops are grown in the UK. "However, in the absence of a ban, tight labeling and traceability laws are vital
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