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Opinion: Europe needs to get a grip over GM

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Europe's refusal to get to grips with genetically modified foods is beginning to matter.

The commission's refusal to address the technology head on was not such an issue while it remained a laboratory fantasy.

But, like it or not, GM is here to stay, and is going pretty much global.

That does not make it right. But it does meant that Brussels needs something better than its historic approach to GM, which amounts to trying to tether it with red tape.

Both sides happy

It is easy to see why the commission might want to continue muddling on.

That gives the pro-GM lobby hope. For example, the European Food Safety Authority in April deemed MON88017, a Monsanto corn loaded with insect and herbicide resistant traits, as safe for human consumption and the environment.

It satisfies the anti-GM protestors too by imposing a de facto ban on most crops while the plodding approval process continues.

The EFSA's approval of MON88017, for instance, does not mean fit-for-planting status - that's for commission bigwigs to decide. And the seed has taken four years to get even this far.

Shippers' dilemma

But the technology is now too big to be hidden in Brussels in-trays, as the fallout from its zero-tolerance approach to GM contamination shows.

While that policy may have passed muster while growing GM crops was a minority, American sport, the crops are now also big in the rest of the Americas. And in Canada, China and India. Australia is growing its first GM cotton, with canola under trials.

That poses huge problems for getting GM-free crops to Europe. Even if shippers could guarantee their vessels GM-free, the potential for contamination of crops – be it through pollen carry or contractors' promiscuous combines – are legion.

Indeed, shippers have realised as much. That's why their reaction to the rejection of US soybean cargoes to Germany, after traces of MON88017 were found, has been in many cases a self-imposed blockade.

To transport further US shipments to Europe is to risk being left holding the beans.

Price risk

If Brussels wants a ban on GM, so be it. But it should take public will, rather than political stealth, to impose such a significant veto.

Rejecting the world's best hope of bumping up crop yields, and keeping food cheap, would come at a cost in consumer prices. Europe's citizens deserve a say in whether they want to pay it.

By Mike Verdin

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