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Ragnar Lofstedt: Time to sow seeds of GM harmony

Why does there continue to be heated debate in Europe about genetically modified crops? When I travel to the States my American colleagues often ask me why Europeans are not prepared to accept GM crops, when the US sees them as safe and beneficial for both the environment and consumers. This transatlantic schism has several possible explanations.

Firstly, as David Vogel, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas Business School, points out, the general public in Europe is less tolerant of food-related risks. They have been exposed to salmonella in eggs and to foot-and-mouth disease (primarily in the UK), dioxin in chicken feed (Belgium), and mad cow disease or BSE (Europe-wide). These crises were, by and large, not handled particularly well by the authorities.

By comparison, the US has not had any major food scares in the past 25 years or so. There has been no BSE (yet) and, as studies by Dr George Gray and his colleagues at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis suggest, the likelihood of the US being affected by a BSE outbreak is comparatively small. The US has not had a foot-and-mouth outbreak for more than 50 years and there have been no cases of dioxin contamination in foods. Indeed, as a result, public trust remains unshaken in the regulatory agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. The possible risks associated with the planting of GM crops are hence regarded with greater tolerance than in Europe.

Secondly, Monsanto's advertising campaign to promote GM crops in Europe was ill-timed, coming so soon after the BSE scare. Because of this, people were sceptical about the advantages of "flavour-saver" tomatoes and "roundup-ready" (weed-resistant) soya beans.

Thirdly, groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have been highlighting the potential dangers of GM crops, claiming environmental risks from modified genes and adverse health effects from GM foods. As the public considers these groups more trustworthy than the promoters of the technology, GM crops cannot at present be grown commercially in Europe until they have been "trialled" and proven to present no significant risk to public health or the environment. The European Parliament has also passed a Bill requiring all GM foods to be labelled so that consumers can make an "informed" choice.

The situation is very different in the US, where some 60 per cent of all soya beans are now genetically modified. In Europe, however, the idea of US-grown GM crops entering the market has triggered a huge political debate which threatens to flare up in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Frustrated by the long-winded nature of the European regulatory process, the US could take a test case to the WTO dispute settlement body. This could have far-reaching consequences.

Based on current scientific evidence it is likely that the US would win such a case. But even if the EU were to change the regulations, the public remains highly unlikely to accept GM crops. The result could be punitive tariffs on EU goods. The key to resolving this potentially explosive dispute is to build trust in the regulators and the industry and keep the public fully informed about the risks (minimal as they may be) attached to GM crops. If the US wants to sell its produce in Europe, it may be better off sharing its experience with its European counterparts, rather than taking its grievances to the WTO.

Ragnar Lofstedt is Professor of Risk Management and Director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College London.