The New York Times: Attitudes on Crops Are Modifying

Kate Galbraith Columnist for The New York Times Writes:

On the subject of genetically modified foods, the United States and Europe could hardly be farther apart. U.S. grocery stores are well stocked with genetically modified cereals and other products, while Europeans have found ways to keep them off the shelves.

But recently, a few fissures have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic.In pockets of the United States, momentum is building behind the concept of labeling genetically modified foods (crops whose genetic makeup is altered to increase yields and to more effectively resist problems like pests and drought). Such labels are already required in the European Union and Australia.

In Europe, concern about genetically modified foods remains entrenched, but the British government has recently signaled a new openness. In a forceful speech last month, Owen Paterson, the secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, said that the government was prepared to “roll out the red carpet” for research and development of new agricultural technologies, including genetically modified crops, so that Britain could contribute to bolstering of global food supplies.

“When it comes to developing and benefiting from G.M. technology, I want the U.K. to be at the forefront of the global race, not watching from the sidelines,” said Mr. Paterson, whose speech indeed incited a vigorous debate in Britain. (Another member of Parliament told The Independent newspaper that Mr. Paterson had “swallowed the industry line hook, line and sinker without talking to anyone with a different view.”)

Whether these developments will be followed by a narrowing of trans- Atlantic policy differences relating to genetically modified products remains to be seen. This week, U.S. and E.U. officials have been meeting in Washington to begin work on a far-reaching trade agreement. Genetically modified crops are one of the most complicated issues under discussion, according to William A. Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a U.S. group that advocates for lower trade barriers.

“Because it will be such a deeply felt issue on both sides, it will probably be one of the last things to be resolved,” Mr. Reinsch said.

More substantive discussion of issues involving genetically modified foods will probably be deferred until the next round of trade talks, in the autumn, he said.

American farmers, a politically powerful group, want more access to European markets for genetically modified crops. But Europe, where genetic modification is common in animal feeds but not in supermarket foods, is certain to resist. The E.U. has approved only one genetically modified crop for cultivation over the past 14 years, according to Mr. Paterson, the British official.

The E.U.’s strict labeling requirements, enacted in 1997, are among the frustrations for American farmers, who say labels discourage consumers from buying a product that is safe and has been in the U.S. food system for decades. Partly for that reason, according to Richard Wilkins, the treasurer of the American Soybean Association, soybean exports from the United States to E.U. member states fell by 82 percent between 1998 and 2012.

“The G.M.O. labeling requirements in the E.U. are egregious,” Mr. Wilkins said — a statement that would elicit sharp disagreements from opponents of genetically modified organisms, who are concerned about matters like allergens, potential cross-contamination of other species and overuse of pesticides and weed-killing herbicides.

Yet even as the labeling debate resurfaces in the trade talks, the practice is starting to take root within the United States.

Whole Foods, a national supermarket chain based in Austin, plans to begin requiring labels for foodstuffs containing genetically modified organisms by 2018. Connecticut recently became the first state to approve a provisional labeling law, though it will take effect only if four other states do the same. The Legislature in Maine passed a similar bill (it awaits the governor’s signature), and a number of other states, including Massachusetts and Illinois, are also considering labeling requirements.

“Activists have been working on this labeling issue for a long time because they see it as a way to influence industry behavior,” said Rachel A. Schurman, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. “And they haven’t had a lot of success in the United States otherwise.”

The labeling initiatives, Ms. Schurman said, have grown out of a rising general interest in food and dietary issues in the United States, thanks to a number of movies on the topic, as well as popular writers like Michael Pollan, who focuses on responsible eating.

“Now food is really on the agenda in the U.S. in the way it wasn’t before, so I think there’s a lot more momentum around labeling,” Ms. Schurman said.

The labeling initiatives will increase Americans’ awareness of genetically modified foods, said Brian Wynne, a professor of sociology at Lancaster University in Britain.

“It is going to be interesting to see where this leads,” Mr. Wynne wrote in an e-mail. “I think that U.S. attitudes are typically less cleanly positive than they are assumed to be from surveys, and the same goes for E.U. ones, in the other direction.”

Still, others said Europe’s longstanding hostility to genetically modified foods would prove tough to overcome.

“Europe is extremely cautious — even irrationally cautious,” said Louise Fresco, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and a former assistant director general for agriculture at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

It will be interesting to see, she said, whether the new moves by officials in Britain will result in “breaking through the deadlock, perhaps, in Europe.”

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