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IFT: No consensus on global GM labelling

By Anthony Fletcher in Orlando , 28-Jun-2006

The current move towards harmonising global regulations on genetically modified food is a good thing, though agreement on labelling remains as far away as ever, an IFT conference heard this week.

But Peggy Rochette, director of international policy at the Food Products Association (FPA) told this weeks IFT meeting on global progress, acceptance and sustainability of genetically modified foods that progress on this matter was vital if opportunities were to be realised.

"Commodity divisions have experienced in practical terms what this divergence in labelling schemes means," she said.

"US soybean exports to the EU for example have decreased from $2.5 billion in 1996 to $874 m in 2004. However, processed food exports continue to grow.

"Look closely however, and youll see divergences. Exports of snacks and cereals - those most likely to contain GM - are down 24 per cent in the time period."

This has all led to a great deal of conflict. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recently said that the "failure of other countries to develop consistent and science-based regulatory processes governing biotechnology has the potential to constrain innovation."

Many nation states in Europe, on the other hand, remain incredibly hostile to GM technology. Given this context, a global consensus on this issue would seem impossible.

But Rochette points out that four global forums for discussion are currently being used. The Cartagena Portocol, Codex, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have all yielded results.

"In 1999, Codex, a referenced international organisation, resulted in the establishment of a taskforce on GM food. This was a science-based consensus that led to the development of four key documents. There has also been success on the principles of traceability, with approval expected next week."

However there have been no successes on the matter of labelling.

"The Codex committee of food labelling has been considering this since 1988," said Rochette. "There is no prospect of consensus. This underscores the long standing differences in global views for even the most basic approach to food labelling."

It is difficult to see how this matter will be resolved. However, Rochette quotes a recent USDA report, which describes three possible scenarios for GM food in the year 2015.

The rosy view is that biotechnology is embraced globally, along the lines of the US's science-based approach. A second view, called 'continental islands', sees GM food products being traded universally within continents, but without any real global harmonisation.

The third view is that 'biotech goes niche'. In other words, the barriers that currently inhibit the global trade of GM food products, be they regulatory or consumer-based, are never overcome.

"We would like the rosy scenario of course," said Rochette. "But we believe that the EU is going to be a challenge. Their way of thinking is different to our way of thinking.

"The EU is such an excellent trading market that it exercises huge influence on others to conform. The US has yet to rise to this challenge and spread its message."

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