Rest of world eats up without a fuss

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH debate about genetically modified (GM) crops and food is echoed around much of Europe, as is the wary attitude towards them. But further afield, and especially in crucial countries such as the United States, Russia and China, the planting of transgenic crops is going ahead almost without raising any interest among the public.

The US spearheaded the wide-scale commercial planting of GM crops for eating with Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato, modified to keep fresh longer. American shoppers hardly noticed, and they have largely remained indifferent through the latest rows in Europe. That attitude was apparent in US coverage of this week's events in Britain: television reports showed the sacks of GM soya deposited outside Downing Street on Thursday, and their reporters treated it like the British view of a French farmers' protest: old-fashioned, wasteful, slightly comic and, when all's said and done, futile.

Certainly China has welcomed transgenic crops in its efforts to raise the harvest.There is no mechanism for people to object - even if the underlying issues were explained to them. In Brazil, some farmers grow fumo louco - "crazy tobacco", genetically engineered by an American tobacco company to generate more nicotine. The shipment of the seeds to Brazil in 1983 broke US export laws, but the genie is out of the bottle: about half Brazil's tobacco exports are now from GM plants.

Similarly, modified potatoes have been grown in Russia to try to withstand unfavourable elements and parasites.

Speaking last year at the World Farming Congress in May, Graham Blight of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, said: "People must realise that these GM [plants] are going to be part and parcel of agriculture production. There's something like $18bn [pounds 11.25 bn] worth of crops grown in the world from genetically engineered products."

But there is strong opposition. India is fighting to try to prevent companies like Monsanto from selling GM seeds to its farmers without careful regulation. Its fear is both that ancient forms of agriculture will be destroyed by modern practices, and that onerous contracts will reduce their farmers to penury.

Within Europe, Austria has repeatedly attempted to stymie the European Commission's attempts to license GM crops by exploiting the labyrinthine approvals process, under which novel crops and foods have to be shown to have no harmful effects and to have benefits over those they might replace.

"Austria was the first country to react strongly, back in 1995 or 1996," said Doug Parr, a campaigner for Greenpeace. "It culminated in a `peoples' vote' ... in 1997, which came out against GM crops." But Austria's attempts at opposition have been steamrollered by Brussels, which has the legal process on its side. In Germany, opinion does not favour GM foods either, and in the past few years there has been a strong shift to organic foods mirroring that in Britain.

"Polling tends to suggest that ... people have become more sceptical," said Mr Parr. "Even Monsanto's attempts, where last year it spent pounds 1m on an advertising campaign in Britain, and found at the end that GM products were less rather than more popular, reflect that."

Yet while the GM debate has raged in Britain this week, nobody has thought to thank the people and government of France. It is due to them that commercial growing of such crops has not begun already.

The reason is, once more, the European approvals process. Plant Genetic Systems (PGS) was the first company to apply for commercial growing of a crop, GM oilseed rape. In 1995 it chose France as the test venue for the tests on human and animal food tolerance.

Every other country has now approved the crop. But in November 1997, amidst public uproar that GM soya from the US was invading its foodstuffs, France imposed a moratorium on GM crops. Without France's approval, PGS cannot get a licence for growing. And nor can any other company's crops.

"The whole moratorium proposed this week by the British government on commercial planting is actually meaningless," explained Mr Parr. "Until France approves the PGS plant, nothing can happen." Somehow, that fact has escaped the fact packs sent out to Labour MPs this week.