Trade war fear as public resists GM food
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Monday May 06 2002
The Guardian


Public resistance to genetically modified food in the UK continues despite the increasing threat of a trade war between the EU and US over the issue of labelling, according to an opinion poll today.

The vast majority of people believe that labelling of GM food is essential and parents remain adamant they would prefer not to feed it to their children. 

The poll, carried out by Mori for Greenpeace, shows continued suspicion of GM food and crops despite claims from the bio-tech industry that both are gaining increased public acceptability. 

The result shows that Tony Blair and the EU would get extensive public backing if the EU refused to bow to US demands that labelling of GM food be abolished. The US has already unofficially complained to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that labelling GM food unfairly discriminates against it. The next step, a formal complaint, might trigger a trade war. 

The poll, conducted between April 18 and 22 this year, showed that, given the choice, 51% would avoid eating GM food, 40% do not mind and 3% would prefer to eat it. Only 18% thought the benefits of GM outweighed the risk and 39% the opposite, with 24% thinking the benefits and risks were about the same. 

But when it came to labelling, 76% backed the EU position that consumers should be told products contained GM ingredients and only 6% supported the US position that labelling should not be compulsory, with 20% having no preference either way. 

Asked about pressure from the US to get the EU to license GM foods more quickly, 50% supported the more cautious approach in Europe and only 13% said US impatience was justified, with 28% having no preference. 

The US food and drugs administration view is that GM food is "substantially equivalent" to normal food and thus consumers should not be given the choice because it is not a health and safety issue. 

The EU has been told by the US that the high cost of labelling products is seen as a restraint of trade under WTO rules and is considering making a formal complaint unless the EU gives way. Peter Kurz, minister-counsellor for the US embassy in London, told a House of Lords select committee that the US would make it clear to the WTO that the EU proposals are "not workable and could unduly impair trade". 

The EU environment commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, takes the opposite view and believes that labelling is essential for building public confidence in food products. 

Greenpeace believes that the EU and US are on a collision course over GM food. Charlie Kronick, a campaigner, said: "The scene is set for the defining conflict of the GM debate. The UK government, and the prime minister in particular, are caught in an awkward dilemma: they are desperate to avoid offending the US because of the special relationship yet cannot reject demands for labelling without incurring electoral consequences." 

The Mori poll was conducted with 1,004 adults aged 15 and over, interviewed face to face in their homes from April 18-22 at 193 sample points in the UK.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited