Speaking in Washington, Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, which lobbies on behalf of almost 1,000 companies and research centres worldwide, defended the industry's record, especially in medical research, and said that it was inconsistent to embrace the medical benefits while denouncing parallel developments in agriculture.
Mr Feldbaum insisted that the industry was phlegmatic about measures announced this week by the US Agriculture Secretary, Dan Glickman, to monitor the safety of GM crops because he was confident that the products were safe. Mr Glickman had announced his intention to launch an independent scientific review of official procedures for approving biotechnlogy products and set up a series of regional projects for the long-term monitoring of GM crop developments.
The measures, which included a pledge to consider European demands for labelling of food made with GM crops, were seen as the first US concessions to European worries about genetic modification of food and an indication that European consumer fears were spreading to the US.
Announcing the additional precautions on Tuesday, Mr Glickman had hedged his remarks with multiple expressions of confidence in the safety of GM techniques, but also mentioned for the first time the need to "stay on top of any unforseen adverse effects after initial market approval", the first nod by the administration to the possibility that the scientific evidence might be incomplete.
That a powerful lobby group like the Biotechnology Industry Organisation should have chosen to speak out so soon after Mr Glickman's announcement indicated that the unresolved trans-Atlantic dispute over GM products is in danger of flaring up in the US, pitting powerful corporate interests not just against consumer worries, but potentially also against farmers. US agriculture, already demanding government subsidies to help offset depressed crop prices, sees the world market for their produce shrinking as a result of the European ban on GM imports, and fears that it could shrink still further.
Alluding to their dilemma this week, Mr Glickman warned the biotechnology companies: "What we cannot do is take consumers for granted ... a sort of if-you-grow-it-they-will-come mentality." The risk was that fearful consumers would not come, and that farmers would be left with unsaleable crops.
According to the US agriculture department, 44 per cent of soybeans and 36 per cent of maize in the US are grown from GM seed, only a few varieties of which have been cleared for sale in Europe.