Americans angered by European curbs on GM

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The Independent Online

The looming clash between Europe and America over genetically modified crops and food got closer yesterday when Euro-MPs put two new obstacles in the way of the GM revolution.

The European parliament in Strasbourg voted to bring in tight new rules on GM food labelling, and to allow restrictions on the growth of GM crops to protect organic and conventional farms from contamination. The move delighted consumer groups and environmental campaigners, but infuriated US trade officials, who see it as protectionism by the back door.

No official reaction was forthcoming in Washington, yesterday but a senior official criticised the new EU rules as "difficult and expensive for suppliers and confusing for consumers". He noted cryptically that the US had "already made its views known" on the subject.

At the core of American anger is the fact that the new rules might allow Europe to become a GM-free zone simply through consumers choosing not to buy GM products (which are nearly all American), and through safety rules that would make it almost impossible to grow GM crops.

A new Mori poll, released to The Independent yesterday, shows that in Britain at least, opposition to GM food remains firm, with just under half the population (46 per cent) opposed to it, and only one in seven (14 per cent) in favour. The major British supermarkets all continue to keep GM products off their shelves, responding to what they see as the public mood.

Paradoxically, the new measures signal the end of an unofficial moratorium on licensing new GM crops by six European countries, led by France. This had led to the US bringing legal action against the EU in the World Trade Organisation. Licensing can begin again, because the rules on labelling and "coexistence" were the quid pro quo that the six countries had demanded for dropping their opposition. But because of the likely effect of the moves, the Americans are unlikely to drop their legal action.

One US official said: "We have made clear to the EU our concerns about the workability of these regulations and their impact on trade."

American farmers claim that the closed EU market costs them $300m (£180m) a year in lost exports, mostly maize. GM crops are not labelled in the US, where the public has not opposed them.

In Europe, compulsory labelling will now apply to thousands of products which contain derivatives of GM soya and GM maize, as well as traces of the actual products, and to animal feeds.

Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman in the European parliament, said: "The customer knows best, and shoppers must have the information so that they can decide for themselves what products to buy.

"If this slows the development of GM products while more research is carried out that may be no bad thing."